Students at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) recently assisted the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with research on the economics and policy challenges of closing aging oil and gas wells in the state. The team of students presented the findings to the DEP Bureau of Oil and Gas Planning and Program Management and then to the Governor’s Office before publicly releasing the report.  

The collaboration began when GSPIA Associate Professor Jeremy Weber approached the DEP’s Seth Pelepko, director of the Bureau of Oil and Gas Planning and Program Management, about working with his Capstone class on topics that the Bureau was grappling with. Pelepko and his team were eager to collaborate with Weber’s class to better understand ways to improve governance of low-producing oil or gas wells. State law requires well operators to fill wells and restore the surrounding area when a well has reached the end of its economically useful life. It is often unclear, however, when a well has reached its end, and operators often have economic incentives to postpone cleanup as long as possible.

Using economic theory and data from a large private well operator, Weber’s team estimated a production threshold below which a gas well is highly likely to be uneconomical. They also provided a review of the regulations that other states and the federal government apply to low-producing wells, a comparison that allowed the DEP to put its regulations into a broader perspective. 

“Managing gas wells in Pennsylvania as they near the end of their production life is a critical component of DEP’s regulatory program. The GSPIA Capstone project positions the agency to understand better than ever before what constitutes economic production. This kind of information is pivotal for ensuring that responsible operators decommission their wells along an appropriate timeline, thus preventing future growth of DEP’s unfunded plugging liability,” said Seth Pelepko, Environmental Program Manager for the Division of Well Plugging and Subsurface Activities in the Bureau of Oil & Gas Planning and Program Management at the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). 

GSPIA students also benefitted from the collaboration. Will Fitzgerald, a GSPIA student majoring in Energy and Environment, participated in the Capstone and called it a welcomed pedagogical anomaly.

Fitzgerald said, “The Capstone course was a collaborative investigation, which required constant questioning, reformulation, and critical thinking. Through it, I learned how research proceeds as a trail of questions one follows and grew in my ability to pause and recognize when an issue needs to be reexamined, a question needs reframing, or the trail has gone cold.“ 

Weber also learned much from teaching his first Capstone course.