In the heart of Western Pennsylvania, where meadows meet industrial remnants, a silent battle unfolds beneath the ground. Denny Mong, a rig operator, stands perplexed, staring at an obstruction hindering his progress into an abandoned oil well. This forgotten fossil of the oil industry, now an environmental hazard, represents just one of thousands scattered across the Appalachian region. In this blog, we delve into the complex world of orphan oil wells, exploring the challenges, environmental consequences, and the monumental effort required for their cleanup.

A Century of Neglect

The Appalachia region bears the scars of a century-long oil and gas industry, with orphaned wells dotting the landscape. Due to historical lax regulations, many wells were haphazardly abandoned, leaving behind a legacy of environmental threats. Luke Plants, the head of Plants & Goodwin, reveals the unregulated past: “Until the 1970s, there were no strong plugging standards in place.” The consequence of this lack of oversight is evident in the patchwork of wells—some capped with tree stumps or cast iron balls—scattered across the region.

The Hidden Menace

The exact number of orphan wells remains elusive, with estimates ranging from 310,000 to 800,000 unidentified wells. This hidden menace poses a significant environmental risk, leaking contaminants into groundwater and emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The federal government’s response, allocating $4.7 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, marks a historic effort to address this pressing issue. Despite this funding, the magnitude of the problem becomes apparent as the first batch of money trickles down to states and contractors like Plants & Goodwin.

Pluggers on the Frontlines

Plants & Goodwin, specializing in orphan well plugging, exemplifies the companies tasked with this monumental challenge. Mong, equipped with a towering rig, battles through obstacles, revealing the bespoke nature of their work—a blend of science, art, intuition, and engineering. Plugging a well can take anywhere from three days to three months, with costs exceeding $100,000. The intricate dance of cherry pickers and steel tubes mirrors the delicate balance required to reclaim these dormant environmental threats.

Rising Orphan Well Numbers

Despite funding efforts, the oil and gas industry continues to contribute to the orphan well crisis. Between 2015 and 2022, over 600 companies filed for bankruptcy, leaving thousands of wells unplugged. Market downturns, affecting oil prices during the mid-2010s, pushed many operations to insolvency. Even in times of industry booms, wells near the end of their production lifespans often end up in the hands of small operators with tight margins. State laws requiring companies to post collateral for their wells in case of bankruptcy are meager, contributing to the ballooning orphan well inventories.

Understaffed Regulators

State oil and gas regulators face staffing shortages, hindering the pace of well-plugging contracts. The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) and other state agencies struggle to meet the demand for increased well-capping contracts, leading to inconsistencies in cleanup efforts. Dan Dudak, former Southern District Deputy of CalGEM, notes the challenge: “Available staffing for oversight was definitely a major limiting factor.”

Contracting Challenges

Contracting challenges further complicate the cleanup process. Pennsylvania’s experience, initially staffing up with federal funds only to face abrupt contract halts, underscores the difficulties in scaling operations. The industry’s struggle to find trained workers and specialized equipment adds to the complexity. The vintage technology required for well-plugging stands in stark contrast to the evolving drilling technology, leading pluggers to seek rigs that may be older than the wells they aim to cap.

Building a Workforce

Plugging wells demands a skilled workforce, a resource in high demand. Plants & Goodwin’s efforts to train local workers highlight the industry’s attempt to build a sustainable workforce. Mong’s rig from the 1950s and the forklifts converting former worksites into walking trails symbolize the bridge between experienced pluggers and a new generation. “We want to give you a long-term career,” is the pitch to recent high school graduates entering the world of orphan well-plugging.

Reviving Local Economies

Experts see the orphan well program as a potential catalyst for economic revival in distressed areas. As oil and gas industries shed jobs, the cleanup effort offers a lifeline, providing employment opportunities and transitioning skilled labor into a new era. Ted Boettner, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, envisions a positive outcome: “The most positive thing that could happen is that we begin to get more companies plugging wells, especially in rural, distressed areas to help their local economies.”

Regulatory Challenge

The challenges in orphan well cleanup extend to regulatory hurdles. Policies aiming to prevent non-compliance, such as the Pennsylvania DEP’s stance on contractors with significant violations, face implementation difficulties. The interconnected web of oil and gas companies operating through subsidiaries across states complicates the enforcement of these policies.

The Promise of Green Jobs

The federal orphan well program includes requirements and guidance to ensure that the cleanup benefits workers. States must adhere to the Davis-Bacon Act, guaranteeing government-funded labor matches average pay rates for similar work in a region. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources and CalGEM showcase how Davis-Bacon requirements influence wage structures, providing a fair compensation framework.

Apprenticeship Programs

Out west, California is taking a proactive approach to nurture a workforce at a larger scale. The California Workforce Development Board launches apprenticeship programs, partnering with well-capping companies to create a curriculum. This two-pronged initiative aims to provide quality jobs and mitigate layoffs, offering skilled laborers a pathway during the energy transition.

Organized Labor Challenges

Despite the potential for a new wave of green jobs, challenges in organized labor persist. California’s legislative requirements inadvertently limit industrial unions, favoring trades unions. The debate over who dominates the green jobs of tomorrow underscores the complex interplay between industry, regulation, and labor.


As the battle against orphan oil wells rages on, it becomes evident that the cleanup effort extends beyond the environmental realm. It is a multifaceted challenge that demands a harmonious blend of regulatory action, industry innovation, and the cultivation of a skilled workforce. The orphan well program, with its hurdles and promises, stands at the intersection of environmental responsibility and economic renewal in the heart of Appalachia. The success of this endeavor hinges on overcoming challenges, fostering a new generation of skilled workers, and ensuring that the cleanup effort leaves a lasting positive impact on both the environment and the communities it serves.