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Michigan hopes to clean up all 450 of its abandoned oil and gas wells in the next 2 years

Graham, Lester
This map shows the locations of the orphaned oil and gas wells in the state.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is establishing an office to tackle cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells — so-called "orphan wells."

The department said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is setting up the Orphaned Wells Program Office “to ensure effective, accountable, and efficient implementation of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s historic investment in orphaned well clean up.”

Michigan already has received $25 million to plug old wells.

“We currently have 450 wells, approximately, on our orphan well list,” said Adam Wygant, director of the Oil, Gas, and Minerals Division at the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

He said the federal government ordered that the money was to be contracted out right away. The expectation was the money would take care of about a third of the orphaned wells. The bids for the jobs came in lower than expected.

The Jablonski 01 orphan oil well, formerly operated by Northeastern Energy Corporation, in Casco Township, St. Clair County.

“And we expect to address pretty much the entire list of orphan wells and plugging and addressing our restoration and dismantling of associated facilities,” Wygant said.

Those associated facilities could include such things as old derricks, pipes, tanks, or buildings.

The 450 wells could be cleaned up as quickly as two years.

Prior to this influx of federal money, revenue for the Orphan Well Program came from a portion of a severance tax on the oil and gas industry. Two percent of the severance tax revenue, or, at a minimum, $1 million, goes into the fund each year. The program averaged between five and 10 well pluggings each year, meaning it would have taken decades to finish the job.

Wygant says more federal grant money will be available in the future. “If we do encounter issues that we’re not able to plug all 450 wells with this $25 million, then we’ll be able to have access to additional funding to plug any wells that we can’t get done with this.”

Orphan well plugging work on Mason Lumber No. 1, an 1870s vintage well uncovered during construction of the Muskegon convention center project in 2020.

Wygant said since the 1920s, the state has kept good records on natural gas and oil wells’ locations. It’s unlikely any more will be discovered, although he noted occasionally a farmer will find a steel pipe sticking out of the ground in the woods someplace “which could be an old water well or anything. But we would go out and investigate.”

A 2020 news release from EGLE describes a 150-year-old abandoned oil well that was unearthed during construction of the Lakeshore Convention Center in Muskegon. About $200,000 from the state Orphaned Well Program was used to clean up contamination and plug the Mason Lumber No. 1 well that was drilled in 1872.

Work to plug the first of the 450 or so remaining orphaned wells begins this month.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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