Thursday, December 10, 2015

Notes From The Field #2: Orphaned and Abandoned Gas Wells

My name is David Platt and I am a father, husband and a member of the Sierra Club. A few weeks ago, I attended an event hosted by the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club and Marcellus Matters, an NSF-funded group out of Penn State that focuses on science education. We spent the afternoon stumbling around public game lands but we weren’t hunting for deer. What were we in search of? We were looking for Pennsylvania’s missing orphaned and abandoned gas wells.

According to an estimate from the Independent Petroleum Association of America, there are 200,000 oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania that undocumented. Out of these, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has located about 12,000 wells. There are potentially thousands of undocumented wells leaking harmful chemicals into the air and into Pennsylvania streams and groundwater. We urgently need people to help find and document these wells.

The industry has been drilling oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania since 1859, when Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville. For the first century of drilling, there was practically no regulation or oversight of these operations. There is no comprehensive map or database of these wells. When a well failed to bring enough petroleum to the surface to make it profitable, it was unceremoniously abandoned. Sometimes these wells were plugged to keep gas and oil from leaking out. But many of these “plugs” have failed over the decades. Now, the Sierra Club is partnering with Penn State’s Marcellus Matters to help locate and document these missing wells.

Last month, as part of the Forest Watch Campaign, a group of Sierra Club volunteers gathered in Williamsport where Nooreen Meghani and Terry Noll of Penn State’s Marcellus Matters program showed us how locate and document these missing gas wells. Once the wells are documented, this information is then sent off to the DEP. We started by reviewing old USGS maps of Pennsylvania. These maps, initially drawn up in the 1940s and revised in the 1970s, show tiny circles where oil and gas wells are located and thin lines to show pipelines. But, as we discovered, these maps are only a starting point because most wells never made it onto these maps. Other sources of information used to locate these wells include county records and satellite data. We then headed to the Sproul State Forest near Lock Haven to look at three previously unknown wells.

The first well was found by a small pond near Camp Run at these coordinates. We inspected the rusty monument to see if there was any concrete support around the steel pipes. This monument was found less than 20 yards away from Camp Run. The second well was clearly visible from the road and located near Rock Run. There was a large, wooden oil or gas derrick on the ground next to it. The monument had some kind of gas leaking from the top and it smelled terrible!

As bad as these wells were, however, the third well was by far the scariest! It had water pouring from its monument like a bathtub spigot. This well created its own stream that flowed directly into Cooks Run. (You can see it on a map here.) Not only was the smell absolutely noxious, the water pouring out created a petroleum sheen. How long has pollution from this well been flowing into Cooks Run? No one knows —until Nooreen reported it to DEP, nobody knew it was here.

If you enjoy our state forests and game lands, then please contact us or the folks at Marcellus Matters to participate in future outings in your area. I understand not everyone can do this but you can at least take the opportunity to tell the the state of Pennsylvania to clean up and protect our public lands. A few days after the outing, I gave public comment at the DCNR Bureau of Forestry’s hearing on the proposed State Forest Resource Management Plan. This plan guides the Bureau in managing our state forests and is an important opportunity to speak up in defense of our public lands. At the hearing, I talked about the orphaned and abandoned gas wells I saw on our outing and spoke out against future gas development on public lands. The Bureau will be accepting written comments through January 30th, 2016 so please send an email, fill out a survey, or mail your comments to the Bureau of Forestry.

To learn more about Marcellus Matters, please go to their website and check out their map of orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania.

The goal of the Forest Watch Campaign is to empower Sierra Club members to become the eyes and ears of the forest. We are organizing a series of conservation outings throughout the state designed to take members to areas currently impacted or under threat by coal, gas, and oil and connect them to advocacy opportunities.

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