Published January 31, 2013
This article was also featured by The Ecologist.
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 almost no one in Pennsylvania has 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 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 300,000 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 140,000 wells, many of which are still in operation, but the rest – more than 150,000 – 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 the 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 of its deep, ancient sleep. Dozens of similar cases were recorded by the 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 that had suddenly become active, gas building up under land and houses like an invisible bomb waiting for the casual strike of the match. What 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 unintended 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 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. And then I thought, I live on an old gasfield too,” said Barr. She told me that after she'd heard about the exploding houses she started getting interested in the issue. Her property in Potter County had old wells too 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 fifties, 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 she 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, 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. All a participant needs is a digital camera, a GPS, and a printout of the orphaned wells already discovered – about 6,100 on the DEP’s site. To help popularize their cause, the well scavengers teamed up with some geochashers – the recreational outdoor treasure hunters – who play at tracking down hidden containers. 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. So far they have found about 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 about $60,000, but could exceed $100,000. Shale gas companies, which frack in the vicinity of old wells, could plug them, but that would be strictly voluntary. 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, in addition to the health and safety issues,” 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 and setting up information campaigns. There are still over a 100,000 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, much worse. The resurrection – the second coming – of Pennsylvania’s orphaned wells is just beginning.
This reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media, publishers of Shalereporter.com.