Fossil fuel fortified beyond reform

It’s wildly ironic that fossil fuel defenders, both here in Pennsylvania and across the country, are crying that more sustainable energy sources are being given an unfair advantage when tax breaks and other incentives are suggested for this less-damaging energy generation.

As a matter of fact, we have been subsidizing fossil fuels for at least a century and a half. Using that as a model, we have subsidized or provided regulatory relief from a host of other polluting industries and products as well.

Politicians benefiting from the generous campaign contributions of the fossil fuel companies don’t seem inclined to change that approach any time soon.

Despite mounting evidence that our fossil fuel use is creating serious climate change issues, some elected officials continue to provide preferential treatment for coal, oil and natural gas, while scoffing at incentives to increase sustainable energy production. Capital & Main, a nonprofit online publication, recently concluded, after months of research of campaign finance, lobbying, and legislative records, “This imbalance is due to a legacy of industry influence over the crafting of legislation.”

While the United States Senate was debating climate change legislation, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly was establishing a bargain basement $2,500 bond for fossil fuel well drilling of less than 6,000 feet. The new law also freezes the discounted bond at the $2,500 level for ten years and the cost per well actually goes down for companies that have more than ten wells! (Alaska, by the way, requires a $400,000 bond and has less than twenty abandoned wells.)

The bond, intended to provide funding to plug and secure wells when they are no longer pumping oil or gas, is only a fraction of the average cost to secure a well, according to an analysis done at the University of Pittsburgh and substantiated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The average is over $30,000 and some cost much more, depending on age and what complications arise.

Scientific American reports that Pennsylvania is home to at least 300,000 abandoned oil and gas wells and a significant number are leaking methane. Methane is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere and McGill University has determined abandoned wells constitute the 10th largest source of methane in the U.S.

Pennsylvania’s recently passed Act 96 of 2022 was intended to lay out a program to spend the money that the federal government is providing for well plugging through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. The act set aside $4.7 billion nationally to create a new federal program to address orphan wells. Pennsylvania could get over $100 million, but DEP estimates that funding will only remediate about 1,400 wells.

The bonds will again be very important once this one-time input of funding is exhausted. Capital and Main contends (and many environmental professionals have also noted) that historically low fees have been, and will continue to be “wholly inadequate to solve the scope of the mess created.”

Do the greenhouse gas reduction programs and incentives in the federal Inflation Reduction Act give an advantage to wind and solar energy? They certainly do. But as this most recent Pennsylvania law once again demonstrates, we’d need another century of such subsidies to come even close to the golden highway paved for the fossil fuel industry.


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