The federal government is pushing new efforts to deal with an old problem – abandoned oil and gas wells. In Pennsylvania, there may be as many as 100,000 orphan wells. If the wells were not sealed properly, they could explode. As The Allegheny Front’s Kate Malongowski reports, the government is using high-tech helicopters to find out where these wells are located.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. For more than 150 years prospectors in the United States have drilled countless holes in the ground in search of oil and gas. Most of the resulting wells were sealed once they became unprofitable. But improperly sealed ones can lead to explosions and other hazards.
With the gas rush now underway in the Marcellus Shale in the Eastern U.S., the federal Department of Energy has made the search for so-called “orphan wells” a high priority. From the radio show The Allegheny Front, Kate Malongowski has our story.
MALONGOWSKI: At the Washington County Airport, a peculiar-looking helicopter is landing. It has two long poles branching out beneath each side, kind of like wings. After the propellers stop, Shane Seddon hops out of the helicopter and removes his helmet. As an operator, it’s his job to make sure the data is being taken in properly as he checks a screen from the cockpit.
SEDDON: It went good, no wind, smooth, no birds, no other planes.
MALONGOWSKI: Seddon is with Fugro Airborne Surveys, an international surveying group hired by the Department of Energy to look for abandoned wells in this part of Pennsylvania. The team will survey a portion of Washington County, where Marcellus shale drilling is expected to surge. He says the survey area is not very big.
SEDDON: It's 290 kilometers in total lines, like lengths, so, I think it’s maybe three or four square miles... it’s a lot of you just go in and tight turns and then fly right back and another tight turn and fly back.
MALONGOWSKI: The helicopter has special equipment mounted on long, white poles on either side. At the end of each pole is a white cylinder pointed at the ground. Inside, these canisters are essentially advanced metal detectors. They can pick up cars, natural metals like gold, or the metal casings found in abandoned oil and gas wells. Whenever the detector senses something magnetic, the data will be shown on a screen that Seddon is checking on during the flight.
SEDDON: I’m just looking at the raw data of what I see and if there’s an anomaly down there it’ll spike.
MALONGOWSKI: The Department of Energy has used this type of technology out west and is now piloting the flyovers in Pennsylvania. Rick Hammack is a scientist with the National Energy Technology Lab and he’s in charge of the flyover project.
HAMMACK: An abandoned well, if it’s not properly plugged, it provides a conduit for gases to come to the surface. These gases could be, of course, methane, natural gas, or something like radon. If wells aren’t known, if you build a house over the top of a well that’s not sealed, the well itself can provide a conduit for radon to come up and invade the basement or natural gas.
MALONGOWSKI: The first natural gas well in Pennsylvania was drilled in 1859. But the industry wasn’t regulated until 1956. That left almost a century’s worth of wells drilled, with little or no records of where they were located. It’s estimated there are more than 100,000 of these so-called “orphan wells” sitting in Pennsylvania. Left untreated, Hammack says houses built on top of these wells can become explosive.
HAMMACK: Certainly, Pennsylvania has a long experience with houses that have exploded because of gases that have accumulated in peoples’ basements and have ignited.
[WTAE VIDEO FOOTAGE: We're also learning brand new information this morning as crews work to find out what caused an explosion at this house in West Mifflin. The explosion happened in the basement of this home around Blueberry Drive. It caused the ceiling to collapse...]
MALONGOWSKI: This explosion, as reported WTAE TV last year was actually caused by methane from an abandoned well. Fortunately, no one was home during this event, but others haven’t been so lucky. Fred Baldassare is a former DEP geologist who specialized in abandoned wells. He’s now a consultant who works on stray methane issues. On his laptop he carries a Powerpoint about some of the most serious abandoned well events he’s worked on.
BALDASSARE: That used to be a two-story house and it go in through the water well, got into the house and it accumulated. The resulting explosion was three fatalities. Everybody in the home was killed.
MALONGOWSKI: Baldasarre says that with the Marcellus boom, drillers are more vigilant than ever about finding out where these wells are.
BALDASSARE: It’s in their best interest and, oftentimes, they have farm-line maps, which are old maps which are handed down through the different oil and gas companies, that are maybe a little better than what the state has.
MALONGOWSKI: But the state is keeping tabs on abandoned wells. Among those doing this is Kristin Carter of the Pennsylvania Geological Survey. At her Pittsburgh office, she leans over a table and points at a map.
CARTER: This is the heart of what is the Washington-Taylorstown field. It’s a historic, large producing oilfield that was developed in the early to mid-20th century. There are a lot of well permits here that start with the number nine.
MALONGOWSKI: Meaning, any well on the map that begins with nine are orphan wells. There are dozens of dots like this on the map, One problem with looking for wells, Carter says, is a lot of the metal casings used to detect these wells are gone.
CARTER: Anecdotally we know that people removed as much steel as they could from the ground because they were using it for other things… the war effort and whatnot.
MALONGOWSKI: With the influx of drillers in the Marcellus Shale, there is even more of a need to locate these wells, hence, the helicopter. Again, Rick Hammack of the National Energy Technology Lab.
HAMMACK: Chances are in years to come that there will be Marcellus development in these areas, but we will already have flown, and we will know where the wells are by the time development reaches these areas.
MALONGOWSKI: Once they’re finished surveying, the data will be synced with video recordings taken from the helicopter, and results of this testing will be available after a three-month analysis. Meanwhile, back at the Washington County airport, Seddon returns to the helicopter for another flight.
[SOUND OF HELICOPTER TAKING FLIGHT]
MALONGOWSKI: It’s time to zig-zag across the county again, looking for more orphan wells. I’m Kate Malongowski.
CURWOOD: Our story on orphaned wells comes to us from the radio show The Allegheny Front.
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