Efforts under way to find abandoned Pa. gas, oil wells

| Saturday, March 12, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Andrew Zadnik probably walked through the same patch of woods in Toms Run Nature Reserve a dozen times while inspecting an abandoned oil well without realizing the remnants of another uncapped well were sticking out of the ground nearby.

A contractor hired by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to plug two non-producing wells on the preserve in Kilbuck and Ohio townships found it and another one, evidence of the unmapped drilling that took place for decades before the first reporting requirements were passed in the 1950s.

“They were completely hidden. Nobody knew about them,” said Zadnik, director of land stewardship for the conservancy, which obtained a $140,000 grant from shale well impact fee money to plug the first two wells and is considering what to do about others.

Officials estimate as many as 200,000 abandoned gas and oil wells dating to the 1860s dot the state's landscape, many uncataloged with no surviving record of ownership.

Most are conventional vertical wells drilled before unconventional drilling took off in the shale play during the past decade, and before regulations required better reporting.

Abandoned and unmapped wells pose dangers to people living or working nearby, especially shale drillers. Crews fracking wells have come into contact — or “communicated,” in engineering parlance — with abandoned wells, causing liquids and gas to shoot from the surface.

Numerous efforts among federal, state, university and industry groups are under way to locate, map, assess and plug the wells. The challenge of finding them — combined with the high cost of plugging them — threatens to slow the push.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for tracking and plugging the wells with money raised through surcharges on drillers. Regulators hope more groups will tap the pool of money for plugging projects, and that rules aimed at protecting land and water around shale wells will encourage this generation of drillers to more quickly fix legacy problems of the industry's past.

The shale industry says it will continue to notify DEP about old wells it encounters, but it balks at paying more for fixes.

“Is it fair to require an operator in the unconventional industry to pay for that abandonment of a conventional well drilled by someone 50 or 60 years ago? I think not,” said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition. “You have funds that are there. This industry has invested those dollars for that purpose, and they should be used that way.”

Funds at the ready

One of the streams of money comes from surcharges on drilling permits and supports the DEP's Abandoned and Orphan Well program. Overseen by environmental program manager Seth Pelepko, DEP staff seek to find responsible parties for old, non-producing wells by researching property records or looking into ownership or operation of nearby equipment.

“If there is a responsible party, we don't want to add a well to the orphan and abandoned list,” Pelepko said.

That list — which includes GPS coordinates and other identifying information for wells whose ownership could not be determined — stands at 12,293 wells, about 3,000 of which have been plugged.

When the drilling industry was most active, permit surcharges flowed, allowing hundreds of plugging operations a year, Pelepko said. Thirty-three were plugged last year, though, as drilling slowed.

Depending on the depth of an oil or gas well and other factors, plugging it safely costs $5,000 to $200,000, DEP said. A well that poses an immediate risk to nearby structures or people will be plugged quickly, Pelepko said. Otherwise, the wells are ranked and addressed in order of need.

When the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy called DEP to add the Toms Run wells to the list, it was told plugging would likely take 10 years, Zadnik said. DEP encouraged the conservancy to hire a contractor with money from a legacy fund supported by impact fees.

Each year, millions of dollars collected in per-well fees go to the fund, which is managed by the Department of Community and Economic Development. The department's Commonwealth Financing Authority approves grants from the fund for environmental projects related to trails, watershed restoration, mine drainage cleaning, flood mitigation and abandoned well plugging.

In three years, only five groups have applied for well plugging funding, including the conservancy. Three were approved — for projects totaling $365,000 — and two requests are pending. The DCED started accepting new applications for funding this month.

“It's important for us at the agency to make more people aware of this,” Pelepko acknowledged.

Incomplete database

Federal money has gone to locating and assessing emissions from abandoned wells.

In 2012, the South Park-based National Energy Technology Lab flew a helicopter equipped with a sensor over a portion of Washington County to locate old wells by detecting their magnetic signatures. Two years later, NETL signed a data-sharing agreement with DEP and flew three more surveys over Oil Creek State Park in Venango County, Hillman State Park in Washington County and Susquehannock State Forest in Potter County.

Researchers went into those areas to find wells, determine whether they were in DEP databases, and measure any emissions they were leaking. State records showed Hillman had 34 old wells. Sensors picked up 165 possible targets; of the 80 hits that researchers investigated on the ground, 51 were found to be wells.

“The database for wells before the 1950s is certainly incomplete,” said Richard Hammack, a research physical scientist at NETL, noting the difference between the state records and what they found. “And the locations of wells that are in the database are inaccurate.”

Flying helicopters is too expensive, though Hammack said he hopes drillers will eventually use cheaper drones to survey the land. In the meantime, NETL plans to share its data with Pelepko's office.

“For smaller areas … we hope to have a more complete catalog of the wells that exist,” Hammack said

At Penn State University, federal money has helped fund a more low-tech approach to finding wells. Nooreen Meghani, a research assistant in the school's Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, is using part of a $2.5 million multiyear National Science Foundation grant to train volunteers to find wells and record their locations with GPS units.

Volunteers have found 20 uncataloged wells and hope to find more during a push this summer, though money from the grant is running out. Meghani is working on a smartphone app that would help people locate and log wells they discover in the woods.

“There's a lot of training needed on how to research the wells, where to find maps or photos,” she said.

The Venango Senior Environmental Corps tells its volunteers to watch for “what looks different. That seems to be the key in finding the abandoned wells,” said John Kolojejchick of Oil City, chairman of the group that's been hunting for wells around Oil Creek since 2003.

The Venango group reports its findings to DEP and has worked with Penn State. But when NETL reviewed its data, it found problems with location accuracy, Hammock said.

“All of the groups are kind of doing their own version of solving the problem,” Kolojejchick said. “It could probably use better coordination between the groups … so the time and effort is better spent. But I guess that takes money.”

Policy change

DEP hopes a new environmental rule for drillers will prompt the industry to find and plug more abandoned wells.

Regulations expected to take effect this year include requirements that drillers survey an area of up to 1,000 feet around a proposed site for any old wells. Coming into contact with an abandoned well while fracking can create a hazard at the surface.

Drillers must report any wells they find in their area of review to DEP and avoid what regulators call “communication” between old wells and new ones, Pelepko said.

“In certain cases, we will undoubtably see some companies decide to plug a well,” he said, calling more locational information and plugging a “beneficial outcome” of the regulation.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition's Spigelmyer says the impact fee money controlled by the state should be used for plugging in such cases. The pace and process of awarding grants from that pool of money makes that scenario unlikely, though.

“That's why the money is set aside,” Spigelmyer said.

David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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