Claiming that old abandoned oil and natural gas wells are a danger to the public, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell said the state will invest $2.3 million to plug 150 of the wells on private property in 10 counties.

Rendell said the measure will make sure that the structures, abandoned during the industry's unregulated past, don't lead to explosions or polluted streams.

"Abandoned oil and gas wells can pollute streams and drinking water supplies and, in some situations, pose explosive dangers to nearby residents and coal mine workers," Rendell said. "This is a public safety concern and an environmental protection issue. Because of the potential hazards, we're taking steps and making the investment necessary to protect nearby residents and workers by cleaning and plugging these abandoned wells."

Rendell said Pennsylvania has the most abandoned wells in the Appalachian region and is one of the top five states nationally. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has documented approximately 8,700 orphaned and abandoned wells throughout the state, and more are often found. A small percentage of abandoned wells leak oil or acidic water from mines, which contaminates streams and drinking water supplies. A rusted casing in a gas well may allow natural gas to flow underground and accumulate in the basement of a nearby building or in a coal mine, with potentially explosive consequences.

Because abandoned wells can cause many problems, the state's Oil and Gas Act of 1984 requires oil and gas well operators to plug nonproducing wells. However, many wells were abandoned prior to when state regulations took effect. In 1992, the legislature amended the Oil and Gas Act to allow certain oil or gas wells abandoned before April 1985 to be classified as "orphan" wells. That amendment also gave DEP the authority and the financial means to plug them. Landowners, leaseholders and oil and gas operators were also relieved from the responsibility to plug orphan wells on their properties.

"We are working aggressively to protect Pennsylvania residents and the environment from the dangers of abandoned oil and gas wells," said DEP Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty. "I commend property owners and local environmental groups who locate, map and report abandoned wells they discover on their lands."

The DEP said in plugging a well, all of the pipe should be removed and the well bore cleaned. The well bore must then be filled with cement and a nonporous material to act as a plug that prevents gas or liquids from entering or flowing in it. Funds for well plugging come from "Growing Greener" grants and from surcharges on well-drilling permits issued in Pennsylvania. The contracts for plugging the wells were awarded through an open and competitive process.

It is estimated that as many as 300,000 were drilled in Pennsylvania after Edwin Drake drilled the world's first commercial oil well in 1859 in Titusville, Venango County, PA. The commonwealth produced half of the world's oil until the East Texas oil boom of 1901.

Since then, Pennsylvania also has become an important area for natural gas production. As oil and gas prices dramatically increase, Pennsylvania is again attracting oil and gas development. DEP said it processed a record 7,292 drilling permits in 2006 -- a 21% increase over 2005, and the fourth straight year of record permitting activity.

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