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Lawmakers consider bill to account for cleanup when developing renewable energy projects

Matt Slocum

State lawmakers are considering cleanup requirements for renewable energy projects when they reach the end of their useful lives–which in most cases is decades away.

Critics say the proposal holds wind and solar to higher standards than natural gas, and could discourage development in the state.

The bill from Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren) would require renewable energy developers to create a decommissioning plan before they start building.

The plans would include how the company would return the land to its pre-construction state and proof that it has the money to do it. Developers would need to provide proof of financial assurance equal to 20 percent of decommissioning costs up front. That amount would grow every five years to reach 100 percent 20 years after construction started.

House Bill 2104 also limits the amount of retired projects that can be sent to landfills to 20 percent of total materials.

Rapp framed her bill as a way to get ahead of future problems, noting Pennsylvania’s history of coal and oil companies abandoning mines and wells and leaving the state to pick up after them.

“I would think from what we’ve learned from history, that we should have a plan today so that we do not leave the problems of tomorrow for our children and our grandchildren,” Rapp said.

During a recent informational hearing on the measure, Scott Elias with the Solar Energy Industries Association said it incorporates some things — like a decommissioning plan — that are already industry best practice.

“I think there is a lot of benefits to making sure there is one standardized decommissioning rule as opposed to having multiple different ordinances across different counties,” Elias said.

Industry representatives oppose the landfill requirement, saying companies can’t yet meet that.

David Murray with the trade group American Clean Power said he’s concerned that the measure singles out renewables. He said it imposes significant burden on developers and is a departure from industry best practices and standards set in other states.

Murray and others stressed that the recycling market is just starting and will likely grow to meet demand.

Murray said 70 percent of a wind turbine is made of steel, and glass accounts for most of a solar panel’s weight. Both of those materials are highly recyclable.

Some lawmakers at the hearing complained the proposed bill puts more hurdles in front of renewable energy than traditional energy sources. Oil and gas companies are required to restore land after drilling, but language in current law is far less specific than that in H.B. 2104.

The state only implemented bonding for oil and gas wells in the 1980s. Drillers must now secure bonds for each well to ensure proper cleanup. However, the law allows companies to bundle multiple wells under blanket bonds. Critics say that means each well is covered for much less than projected clean up costs.

Bond rate varies by the type and depth of the well and how many are covered by a blanket bond, but in practice, companies are covering each well for $10,000 or less. DEP says it can cost between $10,000 to $100,000 to plug an abandoned well. Older wells that have degraded are generally more expensive to cap.

DEP is reviewing petitions to raise the bond amounts from environmental groups including the Sierra Club. They say the cost to plug a conventional well averages $38,000 per well and that plugging an unconventional, or fracked, well costs $83,000.

Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery) and Rep. Sara Innamorato (D-Allegheny) have introduced legislation that would reclassify oil and gas drilling waste as hazardous. They say the bills close a 30-year loophole in the state’s Solid Waste Management Act. The industry has been exempt from testing or treating its waste before sending it to landfills. Similar bills introduced last session were not called up for a vote.

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