Laurie Barr spent a recent Saturday like she spends a lot of her weekends: trodding through the thorny and damp woodlands of rural north-western Pennsylvania, juggling a point-and-shoot camera, a GPS navigator, a cell phone, and, most importantly for the mission at hand, a methane detector.
“I found one!” Barr yelled from deep in the woods to her two friends – fellow abandoned oil and gas well enthusiasts who were decidedly more hesitant to walk off the pre-cut path.
“Here’s the spot they killed the last abandoned well hunter,” Barr joked from somewhere deep in the woods. Then Barr did something she’s done hundreds of times in the last three years – she leaned over a foot-wide hole in the ground and waved around the gas detector until it began beeping. First the beeps were slow, then rapid.
“I haven’t met a well that hasn’t leaked some amount,” she said, taking a picture of the hole, marking the location on her GPS device, and walking back towards the path. “Some are high emitters, some are low emitters, but they all leak.”
The problem for a well hunter like Barr, and for the state of Pennsylvania, is that there are about 200,000 of them.
For much of its history Pennsylvania has been synonymous with oil, gas and coal extraction. Many of its municipalities and geographic features are named after the state’s main economic lifeline – Oil Creek, the village of Burning Well, the city of Carbondale. Oil and coal museums, monuments, and landmarked oil rigs pay tribute to the state’s pioneering past of fossil fuel development.
Even the McDonald’s in Bradford, one of Barr’s favorite locations to take visitors, has a historical well in its parking lot. A sign on the fence that surrounds it proclaims the well is the oldest in the area, producing oil from the 1870s to the present.
But Pennsylvania’s incessant tribute to its past might mask the more troublesome, and still ongoing effects of 150 years of oil and gas production. The fragments of infrastructure from decades of unregulated industry – a pipe in the woods, a few bubbles under a lake – might not be as visible as the monuments to its main industry. But when the less glamorous aspects of the state’s past do bubble up, the results can be ugly.
Gas well being drilled on a felter farm in Pennsylvania. Photograph: Les Stone/ Les Stone/Corbis
No one knows exactly how many abandoned oil and gas wells litter Pennsylvania or the US. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection estimates the number is close to 200,000. Some estimates are a little lower, some much higher. Across the country, the number could be more than a million. Most of the wells are relic of of a time when states didn’t bother to regulate much of what happened on private land, including oil and gas drilling, and when most Americans didn’t think twice about a seemingly esoteric issue like the environment.
But hindsight has proven that losing track of hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells can lead to some problems. For decades, many of the wells have leaked methane into the air, soil and water.
Now, as the state makes its way through the seventh year of a new drilling boom, thanks to the technology of hydraulic fracturing, the old wells are posing an increasing threat. The more companies drill in the state’s Marcellus Shale, the more likely it becomes that the old wells will act as a pathways for newly-released gas to make its way into the earth, streams, and even people’s homes, with potentially deadly results.
The state has launched a renewed effort into finding the wells, but no one, including state regulators, thinks they’ll be able to find most of the wells across the state anytime soon. And even if they did, regulators acknowledge it would cost untold sums and many decades to plug the wells with concrete to ensure the methane stays in the ground.
“Trying to locate all the wells would be an impossible task, but we at least need to raise awareness about them,” Barr said. “We need to face the fact that we’ve dug ourselves into this massive hole.”