Shale drilling could provide a way to deal with abandoned oil wells

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Pittsburgh Tribune Review reporter Timothy Puko examines how gas drilling could bring an opportunity to plug old wells. Features commentary by PEC Sr. VP Jack Ubinger.
January 15, 2012

Almost all of the 20 homeowners in Belmar pay to run a water chlorination system to replace what was free well water from an Allegheny River aquifer. In the 1980s, an oil driller polluted the water, in part, they believe, by dumping waste brine into abandoned oil wells that could date to the 1800s, when Edwin L. Drake set off the boom by tapping his famous well in Titusville.

Today the latest gas-drilling rush in the Marcellus shale may bring an opportunity to plug many of those old wells, but it also brings the risk that old wells could create a path for gas and chemicals to migrate into soil and water.

"The whole area up here is like Swiss cheese," said Weltner, 80, secretary-treasurer of Belmar Association Inc., which operates the treatment system. "It just has holes through all the different strata in the ground, so there's an awful lot of opportunities for contamination of the groundwater. And I think a lot of people are concerned about it, and a lot more communities are getting a public system" to replace water wells.

Most of the state's abandoned wells are in Western Pennsylvania. They arc though McKean, Venango and Butler counties and, in smaller clusters, around the Pittsburgh area.

Unplugged wells pose risks of illegal dumping, water pollution, cave-ins, gas seepage and even explosions, but the state can afford to plug only about 130 a year. At that rate, it could take the state more than 61 years to plug the 8,262 remaining wells that officials know about, and more than 1,350 years to plug the rest -- if crews could find them.

In the past, drillers abandoned wells because there was no rule that said they couldn't. Companies that no longer exist cannot be held liable.

The rejuvenation of the fuel-drilling industry in Pennsylvania could provide a chance to deal with abandoned wells, officials say. With the backing of Gov. Tom Corbett, the Senate and House in November passed preliminary bills that would establish "impact fees" on the industry, and some of that money would be put toward plugging old wells.

Abandoned wells can appear -- or hide -- in a number of forms. Some are holes that are several feet wide and more than 100 feet deep. Others are a few inches of pipe at the wellhead poking up from the ground. Some are camouflaged by cave-ins and overgrowth, appearing as small dips in the landscape.

The Department of Environmental Protection ordered an emergency plug of a well in Moon in 2010 when residents near J.A. Allard Elementary School reported smelling gas from an abandoned well. A house in McKean County exploded last February, leading the DEP to order the owner of three abandoned wells there to pay to have them plugged.

No state records of wells

Drillers pay a surcharge when they obtain permits, which amounts to about $1.5 million annually that the state uses to plug wells, according to DEP figures. The cost of plugging can vary. DEP contracts since 2009 have ranged from as little as $3,027 per well to as much as $194,082, an agency spokesman said.

The Senate's bill, which proposes higher well fees than the House measure, would generate an additional $25 million annually for statewide environmental projects that would include well plugging, mine drainage cleanup, parks and water quality monitoring.

"We're trying to tie in ancient environmental problems with new development, which is fantastic," said David Strong, a Jefferson County environmental scientist who sits on several of DEP's citizen advisory boards. "We can find new money to fight these old problems."

It's in the industry's interest to help solve those problems, said Strong and several others, including industry officials. One of the biggest problems is finding most of the abandoned wells. If a company unwittingly drills a well near an abandoned well, it can create a path for gas to flow uncontrolled to the surface or into groundwater, costing profits and causing a safety hazard.

The old holes usually range from 1,500 to 3,500 feet deep, said Cleason Smith, who owns Hydrosystems Management Inc. in Washington County. Smith's family photos of Washington, taken in the 1800s, show about a dozen drilling derricks next to buildings in the foreground -- and another dozen in the background, to the fading horizon. The state never had records of where those wells and others like them are located, according to its website.

Even if an old and new well don't cross, gas migrating from deep wells can reach abandoned ones and cause contamination through natural fissures, or if man-made seals don't hold, Smith said.

"Drilling through the rocks that have previously sealed in the formation ... a lot depends on the efficiency of those borehole seals in preventing any leakage," Smith said. "If there's any leakage from a Marcellus well, there's potential for it to make contact with an old, abandoned oil and gas well."

Who should plug wells?

Officials at several drilling companies did not grant interview requests, but those who did respond said their companies check drilling zones for abandoned wells before beginning their work. They rarely find them.

Chesapeake Energy has found some in other parts of the state, spokeswoman Jacque Bland wrote in an e-mail, noting that the company worked with DEP to determine who should plug the wells. Chesapeake has not found any near its sites in Washington County, which, after Butler County, has one of the highest concentrations of abandoned wells in the area, according to DEP.

Range Resources found one or two old wells while drilling about 200 wells in Washington County. The company worked with DEP and obtained permission to plug one well, spokesman Matt Pitzarella said. If company workers missed a well, it would cause notable pressure changes that gauges should pick up during drilling, allowing supervisors to stop drilling and avoid problems, he said.

The issue could become problematic for drillers as they explore the edges of the Marcellus shale play where the oil industry once operated, such as Butler and Venango counties and the northwestern part of the state, industry officials said. It is not an issue right now for Royal Dutch Shell plc, which operates in western Butler County, but company officials know it could be if they move into "natural expansion" areas such as Venango County, said Bill Langin, who leads Shell's Appalachian exploration.

Using land surveys and record and data searches, Shell looks for mined coal seams and abandoned wells before constructing its well pads, Langin said. The metal that wells contain can help companies identify them through aerial searches or magnetic surveying, but many of the wells were stripped of metal during World War II, complicating efforts, experts say.

"The only way to find the other ones -- you have to send somebody into the woods to walk around," Pitzarella said.

It would help if the state required drillers to search for abandoned wells as part of the permitting process, said Jack Ubinger, senior vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. That would ensure that all companies conduct thorough searches and help the state incrementally increase the number of wells it knows about, he said.

"We shouldn't be sitting around ... trying to speculate," Ubinger said. "When we talk about having a more robust, pre-development site permitting, we haven't got a lot of traction with the industry."

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