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Hunting for dead, dangerous abandoned oil and gas wells

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Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2013 2:30 am | Updated: 10:39 am, Fri Feb 8, 2013.

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of stories, “Poland to Pennsylvania: An international reporting project underwritten by Calkins Media and the Pulitzer Center.” To see all the stories, go to http://www.shalereporter.com/projects/pulitzer/)

Laurie Barr is a hunter. Each year, around November, when the trees in Pennsylvania lose their foliage and the shrubs are nothing but bare sticks, offering no hiding place or cover, the hunting season begins. But Laurie Barr doesn’t carry a rifle or a crossbow; she doesn’t wear camouflage, and no faithful hounds lead the way.

She doesn’t have to tread silently across the forest floor or keep her voice down because her quarry, if she is lucky enough to find it, is already dead, has been dead for decades. Armed with just a digital camera and a GPS device, Laurie Barr is hunting for what few have heard of: orphaned oil and gas wells.

There are the skeletons of pumpjacks, bent down and frozen in time like prehistoric animals in a tar pit; there are wellheads, bloodied around the joints with rust and age; there are old pipes sticking out of the ground like the totem poles of a long-lost civilization; and then there are just holes, bottomless, empty holes, leading all the way down into the netherworld. When Laurie Barr finds an old well, whatever it is, she snaps a photo of it, looks up the coordinates on her GPS, uploads the image on a special Google map and files a report with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), or, in case of a leak, with the National Response Center (NRC).

It all began in 1859, when Colonel Edwin Drake drilled the United States’ first commercial well near Titusville, Venango County. Since then, there have been an estimated over 325,000 oil and gas wells sunk into the hills of Pennsylvania. When a well stopped producing, it was usually abandoned by its owners, rarely plugged, wellheads and piping taken out for scrap metal but sometimes simply left behind to the ravages of time.

The DEP has records of over 120,000 wells, many of which are still in operation. The rest, about 200,000, are missing from the annals of history, unregistered, lost among trees and weeds and housing developments, their owners decaying in the same ground they used to dig so ravenously for decayed matter. It was not until 1984, with the passing of the Oil and Gas Act, setting up comprehensive legislation for the management of drilling sites, that DEP started searching for and plugging in earnest those ownerless, abandoned wells, which it decided to call “orphaned.” For weren’t they like naughty children, lost in the dark forest? Today, most of them are supposedly defunct and harmless, their last breath expired, but a few are known to leak, quietly gurgling oil and gas, polluting land and water and air in their final death throes.

Recently, though, the dead have been resurrected. In December, 2010 in Bradford Township, McKean County, a house exploded, injuring the residents. Two and a half months later and two and a half miles away, another house blew up, while its owner was shoveling snow in the driveway. And then, in the summer of 2012, a 30-foot geyser spouted water and gas for more than a week in Tioga County, in northeastern Pennsylvania, like a whale that had been stirred out its deep, ancient sleep. Dozens of similar cases were recorded by DEP, even if not all as dramatic. Many of them, it was determined, were related to stray gas migration from old unplugged or poorly-plugged wells, gas building up under land and houses like an invisible bomb waiting for the casual strike of the match. What, in Jesus’s name, was happening to Pennsylvania?

The mystery was no mystery at all. The rush for shale gas, which started in 2005 in the Marcellus shale formation, underlying large portions of Pennsylvania, was having intended consequences. Even though the Marcellus is quite deep, between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, the extraction of shale gas through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that involves injecting huge amounts of chemically-laced water under high pressure to blast the rock underground, was likely displacing gas in shallower geologic layers, where old drilling holes acted as natural pathways all the way to the surface. New industrial wells were pushing gas up the rusty pipes of old wells, the hearts of the orphaned shocked into life by fracking.

“Can you believe, stepping outside to shovel snow and all of a sudden your house goes ‘poof’? That’s mind-blowing,” Laurie Barr tells me about the time she heard of the exploding houses and started getting interested in the issue. “And then I thought, I live on an old gas field too.”

Her property in Potter County had old wells and she even used to hang birdfeeders from the rusty pipes sticking out of the ground, believing they were safe. A graphic designer in her early 50s, with the high voice and enthusiasm of a child, she had long been involved in campaigns against the Marcellus drilling that was destroying the quiet of her home, but looking at the blown-up homes in Bradford she understood there was something else that needed doing. And so, she made a decision: she would go hunting for orphaned and abandoned wells — or “lost” wells, as Laurie Barr prefers to call them — record their locations and promote their plugging.

“There are a lot of people fighting the Marcellus, but lost wells are an issue we could work on getting fixed. We may never stop the shale gas development in the Marcellus, but we could at least reduce the risk by promoting the plugging of old wells near active drilling sites,” she says.

To that end, Laurie Barr, along with a couple of associates, set up a website, Save Our Streams PA, and started a state-wide campaign called “Scavenger Hunt PA: The Hunt for the Orphaned, Abandoned, Plugged and Un-Plugged Oil and Gas Wells in Pennsylvania.” The concept is simple, very much like an adventure game for adults. Everything a participant needs is a digital camera, a GPS and a printout of the unplugged orphaned and abandoned wells already discovered — about 8,500 on the DEP’s site.

To help popularize their cause, the well scavengers teamed up with some geocachers, the recreational outdoor treasure hunters, who play at tracking down hidden containers with GPS devices. Laurie Barr even made badges for members of her organization, a block-lettered “LOST” printed in the center, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the TV series Lost. All in all, they have found so far around 100 orphaned wells.

The main problem is that even when an orphaned well is tracked down and reported, the DEP rarely has enough money to plug it. The restoration cost for a 3,000-foot hole is on average $60,000, but could sometimes exceed $100,000, according to recent analysis at the Carnegie Mellon University. Shale gas companies, which frack in the vicinity of old wells, could have them plugged, but that’s just a voluntary procedure. And so, with its minimal operating budget, DEP’s Abandoned and Orphaned Well Program manages to take care only of a small percentage, the most critical ones that leak near waterways, fragile habitats or residential areas. The rest are just left alone, spewing methane, a greenhouse gas a hundred times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

“These orphaned wells are probably contributing a lot to climate change as they’re pouring a lot of methane into the atmosphere. We try to raise awareness of that, if addition to the health and safety issues,” Laurie Barr tells me.

It is what she does, when not hunting for wells: traveling around the state and beyond with a large bag full of photographs, maps and official documents, giving presentations to communities, setting up information campaigns. There are still about 200,000 undiscovered wells in Pennsylvania and, with tens of thousands of shale gas fracking operations planned in the next couple of years, the situation is bound to get worse. The resurrection — the second coming — of Pennsylvania’s orphaned wells is just beginning.

Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey, and a contributing editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has also appeared in Esquire, Outside, The Nation, the International Herald Tribune, and others, and has been twice anthologized in “The Best American Travel Writing.”

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Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale Formation

The Marcellus Shale is a rock formation thatunderlies much of Pennsylvania and portionsof New York, Ohio and West Virginia at a depth of 5,000 to 8,000 feet. It is believed to hold trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. This formation has long been considered prohibitively expensive to access but recent advances in drilling technology and rising natural gas prices have attracted new interest in this previously untapped formation.

The Center for Workforce Information & Analysis (CWIA) used the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) to define the Marcellus Shale industry sector. Much of the information included in this document reflects data on a group of six industries identified as “core,” and a group of 30 identified as “ancillary” to the processes involved in accessing the resources in the Marcellus Shale formation. The six Workforce Investment Areas (WIAs) most closely involved in Marcellus Shale activities are Central, North Central, Northern Tier, Southwest Corner, Tri-County, West Central, and Westmoreland-Fayette.

Population Demographics

The Westmoreland and Fayette WIA encompasses Westmoreland and Fayette Counties. The unemployment rate was 8.0% in September, which was three-tenths of a percentage point below the state unemployment rate. There was a 1.5 percentage point difference between the two counties’ rates. While 89% of the population has a high school degree or above, only 20.5% has achieved a four-year degree or higher. The state has a similar percentage of those with a high school degree and higher - 87.1% - but a larger percentage of people who have achieved a more advanced degree.

The region had a 2010 population of 501,775, which was almost 14,000 fewer residents than in 1990. The region had slight growth in the 1990s, and negative growth in the 2000s, whereas the state and nation saw growth over both time frames. In 2010, the region was 93.9% white, non-Hispanic, and 48.8% male.

Industry Demographics

Across the state, the industries making up the Marcellus Shale sector had a predominantly male workforce. Across the state, most industries had a higher percentage of employment in the 45 to 54 year old age range than any other age group. The industry groups in the tables below encompass, but are not limited to, all of the industries defined by the CWIA as core and ancillary to the Marcellus Shale industry sector.

Building Permits

Both the state and the region have seen a decline in building permits since 2006, with the region having an uptick in 2008. While the state saw a 10% increase between 2009 and 2010, the Westmoreland and Fayette region had a slightly larger increase of 16%.

Employment

Marcellus Shale industries added over 650 jobs to the regional economy between first quarter 2008 and first quarter 2011. The core industries have more than doubled in three years.

Wages

In 2010, the core industries had an average annual wage of $75,176 in the Westmoreland and Fayette region, which was well above the state average for all industries of $45,747 and over twice the regional average of $36,192. The ancillary industries also had a higher average wage of $59,321. The state’s average wage for core industries was $73,150 and for ancillary was $61,871.

New Hires

Core industries have had growing numbers of new hires through the most recent quarter, with the largest number in the second quarter of 2010. Ancillary industries have added increasing numbers to their payrolls as well, with 682 new hires in the second quarter of 2011.

Workforce Compatibility

These data provide an understanding of how well the skills of a region’s labor force meet the workforce needs of an industry. The first number is the proportion of industry jobs that require higher levels of experience, training, and education. The second number is the proportion of the region’s workforce that has the higher skills the industry seeks. For example, in water supply and irrigation systems (NAICS 221310) over 58% of the occupations within the industry require significant levels of on-the-job training and/or post-secondary education, indicating that the industry is very skilled. Furthermore, over 23%-- almost 1 in 4—of the region’s workers has the skill sets required to meet the occupational needs of the industry sector. Given this information, an analyst can conceivably conclude that the industry is a good fit for the capabilities of the regional workforce. In the Westmoreland-Fayette region, most industries are reasonably compatible with the local workforce. However, potential workforce skill gaps can be found in fossil fuel electric power generation; engineering services; geophysical surveying and mapping services; testing laboratories; and pipeline transportation of natural gas.

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