Special Report: Uncovering abandoned oil and natural gas wells by Shane Hoover, July 16, 2015, indeonline.com
For decades, old abandoned wells have leaked oil, natural gas and brine into soil and drinking water, and posed an explosion risk. Abandoned wells lurk beneath homes and buildings in Ohio; under the busy streets of Los Angeles and the sparse Oklahoma plains; and in parks, backyards, forests, cornfields and cemeteries from Appalachia to the Pacific Ocean.
More than a million oil and natural gas wells were drilled in this country before anyone really knew how to plug them. Once the oil or gas was gone, the wells were abandoned with little thought of future consequences. [Today, things are not much improved in how wells are abandoned (or not abandoned) with cumulative negative impacts from brute force, ignorant high pressure frac experiments dramatically increasing industry’s already bad and expensive problem of leaking gases and pollutants] Some have been open holes in the ground since the 1800s. Others are plugged with little more than dirt and logs. For decades, old abandoned wells have leaked oil, natural gas and brine into soil and drinking water, and posed an explosion risk.
The danger is often hidden. Hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells were never properly mapped. Many of the companies that drilled them no longer exist.
Abandoned wells lurk beneath homes and buildings in Ohio; under the busy streets of Los Angeles and the sparse Oklahoma plains; and in parks, back yards, forests, cornfields and cemeteries from Appalachia to the Pacific Ocean.
Abandoned wells are the unwanted legacy of 150 years of drilling booms and busts. Now those old wells pose a new danger as the country rides another petroleum boom driven by hydraulic fracturing techniques that unlock vast new reserves.
Most drilling is concentrated in Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Louisiana — a list that includes states with large numbers of abandoned wells.
To frack a well, water, sand and chemicals are injected underground with enough force to break rock. When abandoned wells are near the rock layer being fractured, the increased underground pressure can cause the old wells to leak oil and gas, similar to the way squeezing a juice box squirts liquid from the straw. Potentially toxic fracking fluid also can flow though old wellbores to other underground layers.
… Increased danger of contamination or explosions from abandoned wells has led to more aggressive efforts to find and plug old wells. In Pennsylvania, birthplace of the U.S. oil industry, the state is turning to citizen volunteers, scientists, drillers and archivists to find hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells. …
LEGACY OF ABANDONED WELLS
America’s first oil boom started in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, then moved west as new discoveries were made, first in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky; then in Indiana, Illinois and Kansas. By the early 1900s, Oklahoma, Texas and California were becoming major producers.
As is the pattern in the oil industry, each boom led to a bust. Crude technology, bankrupt companies and poor drilling records seeded the ground with a dangerous crop of abandoned wells.
At least 4 million wells have been drilled since 1859. Of those, a million are still producing oil and natural gas. New wells are drilled each day. Beneath the topsoil, the earth’s crust is a layer cake of alternating bands of rock, sand and clay. Some layers hold freshwater; others oil and natural gas.
… In 1879, New York was the first state to make drillers plug unproductive wells. Other states followed. But the early rules were designed to keep water from flooding oil deposits.
Groundwater protection only became important decades later. Even with requirements, drillers plugged old wells on the cheap. The logs, clay and junk — even baseballs — used for plugs were temporary at best. According to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, wells drilled before 1930 generally were not plugged with cement. And cement plugs used before the arrival of quality standards in 1952 didn’t always harden properly. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million wells were drilled before 1930. A fifth of them produced nothing, and the average life of producing wells ranged from eight years in 1890 to 21 years in 1930. That left a lot of old wells across the country with questionable plugs, or no plugs at all.
Abandoned wells without proper plugs put the public and the environment at risk. [What about fracing drinking water aquifers and injecting oilfield waste and or chemicals into them?]
Oil, natural gas and brine seeping from the old wells can pollute groundwater, and flow to the surface to contaminate soil, rivers and lakes. Natural gas leaked from an abandoned well is a potent greenhouse gas, and can collect inside a building and explode.
In 2011, a Groundwater Protection Council study found that abandoned wells caused 41 incidents of groundwater contamination in Ohio between 1983 and 2007, and another 30 in Texas between 1993 and 2008. [Is that all? Sound like the Council missed a lot of contamination cases] None of those incidents was related to fracking.
A U.S. Geological Survey study from 1988 found that brine from abandoned wells polluted part of the groundwater supply for 50,000 people in West Point, Kentucky, and nearby Fort Knox.
Some abandoned wells may pose little or no noticeable danger for decades. But when new underground pressure from hydraulic fracturing drives material through subterranean layers of rock and soil, the old wells take on new significance as potential sources of pollution and dangerous explosions.
Pennsylvania has documented at least seven cases since the late 1990s where fracking a new well caused gas and fluids to leak from nearby abandoned wells, a phenomenon called communication.
… In one of the Pennsylvania incidents, natural gas seeped underground to within 8 feet of a home. Natural gas from abandoned wells can be very dangerous when it collects inside buildings.
In 1985, gas leaking from a fault and an abandoned well exploded in a Los Angeles department store, injuring two dozen people.
Slides from Ernst presentations
In Ohio, cities on the southern shore of Lake Erie, including Lorain and Cleveland, are dotted with old gas wells drilled in the late 1800s and early 1900s to supply homes and light street lamps. The Lorain fire department keeps a list of 135 old wells in the city and nearby communities. Last October, Lorain officials evacuated staff and 350 students from the recently built Admiral King Elementary after detecting a gas leak. [And at Rosebud Alberta, officials lie and cover up for Encana, and keep residents living in danger]
When the fire department and the gas company found no problems with the pipes, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources went looking for an abandoned well. A five-week search at the school revealed an abandoned well under a corner of the gym.
Workers had to remove part of the gym wall and roof to reach the well with plugging equipment. Students couldn’t return to school until after Christmas. The gym’s footprint is being changed so the well is outside the building. “When you go into these,” said Eugene Chini, head of Ohio’s plugging program, “you don’t know what you’re going to run into.”
… Companies that own wells are responsible for plugging them, but bankruptcies and the passage of decades can make ownership difficult to determine. Abandoned wells without identifiable owners are called “orphan wells.” States first started plugging orphan wells in the 1960s. In the 1970s, passage of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act strengthened state rules on plugging to better protect groundwater. According to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, at least half of the states have some sort of plugging program today, usually within the agency that regulates oil and gas drilling.
The money to plug wells generally comes from [mostly paid by public tax dollars,] fees, bonds and taxes paid by the oil and gas industry, so funding levels fluctuate with the amount of drilling activity in a state. States also can use federal funds to plug abandoned wells to protect navigable waterways. Well plugging is expensive. Average costs vary widely — from less than $3,000 to more than $1 million in the case of an offshore well — depending on the terrain, depth of the well and the particulars of the geological layer cake.
Unable to plug every well, states plug the most dangerous ones first. [If they know generally where they are, and can find them]
Texas, where more than 1 million wells have been drilled, spends the most on its plugging program. Since 1984, the state has spent $240.3 million to plug 34,423 wells. Last year, it plugged 563 wells for $15 million. Still, Texas’ population of orphan wells has grown from 7,036 at the end of 2010 to 9,349 at the end of 2014.
Other state programs for plugging wells are less effective.
Recent legislative audits in Louisiana and West Virginia faulted those states’ programs for lax inspections and enforcement. And in Illinois, lawmakers have transferred money from the state’s plugging fund to be used for other things. …
… Also, increased production has led to lower oil and natural gas prices and slowed the pace of drilling. That means less money for states such as Pennsylvania that get most of their plugging funds from surcharges on well permits. Lower oil and natural gas prices also puts financial pressure on well owners, who may abandon wells in the wake of bankruptcy. …
HUNTING ABANDONED WELLS
Before states can plug abandoned wells and reduce the risk to the public and the environment, they need to find them. That can be a challenge in states with long histories of drilling, multiple boom-bust cycles and vague or missing [and or shredded] records. …
Pennsylvania is crafting new rules that would make drillers locate active, inactive, orphan and abandoned wells within 1,000 feet of a gas well or horizontal oil well, and within 500 feet of a vertical oil well before fracking takes place. Orphan or abandoned wells altered by fracking would have to be plugged by the driller or placed into production. The goal is to have the rules finalized by 2016.
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