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Two new reports focused on Pennsylvania and nearby states find that cleaning up old coal mines, and plugging abandoned oil and gas wells, could create thousands of jobs. 

The research, done by the Ohio River Valley Institute, looks at Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, and identifies hundreds of thousands of acres of un-reclaimed coal mines, and more than a half-million abandoned oil and gas wells.

“These wells are imposing environmental damage, health and safety damage, and also they’re leaching pollutants into the air and water,” said Ted Boettner, author of “Repairing the Damage from Hazardous Abandoned Oil & Gas Wells: A Federal Plan to Grow Jobs in the Ohio River Valley and Beyond.” 

Abandoned wells leak and emit methane, which contributes to climate change, “And a concerted federal effort to plug the region’s wells could abate 71,000 metric tons of methane each year, equivalent to the yearly greenhouse gas emissions of 383,000 passenger vehicles,” the report states.

It says these wells also lower nearby property values and in some cases cause explosions. 

Plugging abandoned wells could be an economic boon to an economically starved region. The report finds that a federal well-plugging program could create more than 15,000 jobs per year over two decades.

“And the good news is that these are not, ‘let’s train somebody and pray that they find a job,’” Boettner said. “These are jobs that are identified, and that we can get started on today.”

According to the report, plugging wells in the four states could cost upwards of $34 billion. 

It suggests paying for well plugging by eliminating or scaling back fossil fuel subsidies, and placing a small fee on oil and gas production. 

The industry “receives the same treatment for taxes and investments as every other business in the U.S.,” said Dan Weaver, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association in an email to The Allegheny Front. He also said the industry “supports all efforts to plug abandoned oil and gas wells, which is a significant challenge in Pennsylvania, given its long history of energy production.” 

President Biden included $16 billion for plugging abandoned gas wells and cleaning up old coal sites in his recently announced $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

Cleaning Up Abandoned Coal Mines

Congress created the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) program in 1977 to clean up the damage by the coal industry. According to another ORVI report released this week, nearly $8 billion worth of damage on 978,000 acres has been cleaned up.

The report,  “Repairing the Damage: Cleaning up the land, air, and water damaged by the coal industry before 1977,” found that 27 percent (using 2020 costs) of all AML damage has been repaired, and identified 850,000 acres of remaining unreclaimed coal sites nationwide. It found that the seven Appalachian states (Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia) bear more than 80 percent of the unreclaimed acres and costs. 

The pollution is concentrated in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which, according to the report, are home to roughly half the unreclaimed acres, and two-thirds of the costs. 

There are a number of different problems that are caused by AML damage,” said author Eric Dixon. It can “threaten the injury and death of residents, deter development, harm local ecosystems, and contribute to climate change.”

In Appalachia, 5.5 million people live within one mile of an AML site, including one in three West Virginians. 

Dixon said these sites create “water pollution, including streams that are clogged from sediment that’s come off of these sites into nearby waterways.” He added that enough polluted water comes off abandoned coal sites nationwide to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two minutes. 

Dixon also worries about the air pollution and climate impacts caused by AMLs, “including gases actually leaking from underground mines and surface coal mine fires,” he said. According to the report, there are nearly 7,000 acres of unaddressed AML mine fires, which emit CO2. 

Those are kind of unmonitored, we don’t know the extent of those emissions, but that’s another potential large source of greenhouse gas emissions from abandoned mine lands,” he said, adding that abandoned coal mines are the 11th largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.

The upside

Cleaning up those sites could create thousands of jobs, in fields like construction and engineering.

“If we were to repair half of the remaining damage over the next decade, then we would create about 7,000 direct jobs, and 17,000 indirect jobs,” Dixon said. OVRI is encouraging workforce training, to ensure that a portion of these jobs goes to people in local communities.

The ORVI is pushing for $13 billion in federal funding to reclaim abandoned mine land.

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