If emissions from abandoned wells are indeed a tenth of the methane emissions, that’s a real, substantive problem for global warming,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University. “We could be setting ourselves up for a situation that lasts centuries.”
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection recently launched an effort to digitize maps from various state agencies in an effort to find wells that are documented in some form but still not on the DEP’s master list. So far the agency only has about 8,700 on its list.
The state has also partnered with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, a branch of the US Department of Energy, to conduct helicopter flights over state forests. The helicopter is equipped with an electromagnetic sensor that can find the general location of wells as long as the metal hasn’t been stripped out of them. The NETL’s helicopter data is still being analyzed, but its researchers say they’ll likely find at least a couple hundred.
That still leaves the vast majority off the map. And it still leaves the question of what to do with the wells once they’re found unanswered.
“Even if you knew where all the sites were, you could only do so many contracts [to plug the wells] each year,” said Seth Pelepko, who heads the DEP’s abandoned oil and gas well program. “So this is always going to be an incremental process.”
According to Barr, if the DEP planned to plug every oil and gas well in the state at its current rate, getting to 200,000 would take hundreds if not thousands of years.
Joann Parrick and Mark Dalton look at a map of oil wells located near their property. They found the map in their attic. Photograph: Peter Moskowitz
Given their limited budget, the state and NETL researchers say they’re focusing their efforts mostly on public land where new gas wells are likely to be drilled.
Once the NETL maps those wells, the idea is that either the state or fracking companies can plug them before new drilling begins. That way the state can at least help prevent new gas migration.
But activists like Barr say the state’s limited plugging won’t be enough.
Since 2007, Pennsylvania has issued nearly 45,000 new well permits. About a third of those are for “unconventional” wells. That means they’re often thousands of feet deep and hydraulically fracked, a process which requires myriad chemicals and leaves holes significantly more complicated to plug than traditional wells.
State leaders like Republican Governor Tom Corbett have made the case that regulations today are much more strict than in the past. Before 1956, oil and gas wells on private property didn’t even require permits. Now companies must go through mountains of paperwork to drill a well. The current regulatory system means newly drilled wells likely won’t go missing like their predecessors did. But they might still be abandoned.
The state currently requires companies to put down a bond of $4,000 for shallow wells and $10,000 for deeper ones. The state can (but is not required to) use that money to plug the wells if the companies abandon them.