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Acceptable risks? Old abandoned wells spew geysers, toxic foam, and deadly methane when new shale drilling intersects

November 20, 2012
Leaking old well. Photo:

Leaking old well. Photo:

Thanks to crackerjack reporting by Laurie Barr of Save Our Streams, along with StateImpact, the explosive (literally) issue of old abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania is becoming better known. That may be just in the nick of time, because the danger posed by old abandoned wells has already produced tragic deaths (see below); exploded homes (two of them recent, in Bradford Township, McKean County, PA); toxic foam coming up out of the ground (see the Smitsky case, including 8 dead goats, skin rashes on the humans, in western PA); 50-foot geysers and destroyed hunting cabins (Tioga County, PA just a few months ago). What the frack is going on? What do all these scary, weird incidents have in common?

It’s new drilling — including Marcellus Shale fracking — right on top of the old oilfields and gasfields.

Shell doesn’t want you to “get” that. DEP talks about it in terms so polite it might pass you right by (“active” sites “communicate” with old abandoned sites, in DEPspeak). But that’s the problem, and like all things Marcellus, it’s a monster-sized problem.

Pennsylvania has 325,000 to 500,000 old abandoned oil and gas wells, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Why so much room for error? Because many of them are not mapped. They’re not mapped. And mostly, they’re not plugged; or if they are, they’re often not reliably plugged.

However, we are absolutely positive that DEP is going to make sure that all the NEW wells are plugged properly… right?

It has cost $700,000 to “plug” (responsibly seal up with a somewhat reasonable hope the seal will last a few years or more) one Marcellus shale well, as Cabot found out when they were actually asked to do just that. It cost Cabot over $2,100,000 to plug up three of its wells. And how many Marcellus wells is PA DEP planning to permit in PA? Sixty thousand, one hundred thousand? Hmm. Does anyone in their right mind expect the industry to pay to plug them all properly, then pay to re-plug them for hundreds of years, whenever the seals fail?

Here’s an excerpt from, and a link to, Laurie Barr’s report, “Acceptable Risks?” Thanks, Save Our Streams.

In a  2009 Department of Environmental Protection (draft) report titled Stray Natural ‘Gas Migration Associated with Oil and Gas Wells, dozens of incidents of stray gas migration incidences  are detailed, many associated with abandoned oil and gas wells 1

One of the most tragic natural gas migration incidents happened in Jefferson County, when the bodies of a couple and their 17 month old grandson were found buried in the debris after methane migrated from abandoned wells near active operations.

In 2010 The Pennsylvania (PA) Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) volunteered to have its hydraulic fracturing program reviewed by The State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, Inc, (STRONGER).2

Read more.

One Comment


  1. Environmental Must-Reads – November 21, 2012 | Stuart H. Smith

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