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Deteriorating Oil and Gas Wells Threaten Drinking Water, Homes Across the Country

April 12, 2011

Abandoned wells are everywhere, they can lead to dangerous gas buildup at the surface or contamination of groundwater, and there is little money to fix the problems.  ProPublica looks at the how our homes and our health is threatened by these deteriorating and sometimes unknown wells, especially now that new unconventional natural gas drilling and fracking is carving into the landscape.

A gas well vent in Versailles, Pa. Gas from abandoned wells is vented away from homes but causes air pollution and contributes to climate change. Methane is up to 20 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. (Source: Nicholas Kusnetz /ProPublica)

“In the last 150 years, prospectors and energy companies have drilled as many as 12 million holes across the United States in search of oil and gas. Many of those holes were plugged after they dried up. But hundreds of thousands were simply abandoned and forgotten, often leaving no records of their existence.”

The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a multi-state agency made up of regulators and industry representatives, “found that states had located nearly 60,000 wells that needed to be plugged — and estimated that as many as a million more may be out there. In Pennsylvania alone, regulators estimate that 184,000 wells were drilled before records were kept. Many of those wells were plugged with stumps, rocks or nothing at all.”

West Mifflin, PA. Nick Kellington and fmaily had to abandon their home due to a gas leak. Nothing will grow on the land now. (Source: Nicholas Kusnetz /ProPublica)

“Some regulators are concerned that fracking, which is used in most new wells, increases the possibility that old wells will be damaged or disturbed. The process injects water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressure to release oil or gas. But by disrupting the earth it can also push gas and other contaminants into openings created by old wells.  In an internal briefing last year, EPA scientists raised concern that fracking near Pennsylvania’s many abandoned wells could threaten groundwater, saying the old wells ‘may present a risk unique to the hydrofrac process’.”


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