In February 1932, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt was plotting a run for the White House. And in northeast Pennsylvania, the Morris Run Coal Co. had just finished drilling a 5,385-foot-deep gas well on a farm owned by Mr. W.J. Butters.
Eighty years and four months later, the Butters well was tied to another incident — even though it had been inactive for generations. It played a key role in a methane gas leak that led to a 30-foot geyser of gas and water spraying out of the ground for more than a week.
Methane is an odorless, colorless gas that exists naturally below the surface. It isn't poisonous, but it's dangerous. When enough methane gathers in an enclosed space — a basement or a water well, for instance — it can trigger an explosion.
The gas didn't come from the Butters well, nor did it originate from the Marcellus Shale formation that three nearby Shell wells had recently tapped into. What most likely happened to cause the geyser in June, Shell and state regulators say, was something of a chain reaction. As Shell was drilling and then hydraulically fracturing its nearby well, the activity displaced shallow pockets of natural gas. The gas disturbed by Shell's drilling moved underground until it found its way to the Butters well, and then shot up to the surface.
Companies have been extracting oil and gas from Pennsylvania's subsurface since 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled the world's first commercial oil well. Over that 150-year period, as many as 300,000 wells have been drilled, an unknown number of them left behind as hidden holes in the ground. Nobody knows how many because most of those wells were drilled long before Pennsylvania required permits, record-keeping or any kind of regulation.
It's rare for a modern drilling operation to intersect with an abandoned well. But incidents like Shell's Tioga County geyser are a reminder of the dangers these many unplotted holes in the ground can cause when Marcellus or Utica Shale wells are drilled nearby.
New Well Meets Old Well
Fred Baldassare worked at Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection for 25 years. He spent more than half his career investigating cases of methane migration, where gas from wells, coal mines, landfills or other sources broke loose and made its way to the surface.
Baldassare investigated more than 200 different episodes. Only a handful of them, he says — perhaps five or six — involved an active drilling site communicating with an abandoned oil or gas well. But when the new and old operations did intersect, Baldassare says, the results were often "dramatic."
When energy companies drill down to the Marcellus Shale, deep below the surface, their wells pass through several smaller, shallow gas formations. Drillers go to great lengths to seal off their gas wells, and Pennsylvania regulations require companies to bond their multiple layers of steel casing with top-grade cement. Most of the time, this casing prevents the shallow gas from moving to the surface.
But if an old, unplugged gas well has been drilled into the same formation already, the new activity can displace pockets of gas, through pressure changes and physical interaction. Baldassare explains, "that gas can move to the old well, because [the well] represents a low-pressure zone and a natural migration highway.
"Gas always wants to go from high pressure to low pressure," Baldassare continues. "That old well represents a low-pressure zone. Much like water wants to move downhill, gas wants to move to low-pressure zones." The lowest pressure is near the surface, so once the gas reaches an old well, it will shoot straight up.
And a new well doesn't need to be present to trigger this migration. Gas can migrate to the surface through these pathways on its own. The state has investigated dozens of cases where unknown wells have led to gas pooling in basements, water wells or other locations.
So it's critical for regulators and drillers to find these wells before it's too late. That's much easier said than done, though. In the decades since these wells have been drilled, towns have been built over top of them, vegetation has covered them up, and the physical signs of wells — metal casing and pipes — have been removed by scrap collectors. The result: Oftentimes, the first indication of a well's presence is a methane gas leak at the surface.
The best guess of both the state and the energy industry is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 325,000 wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania since Drake's. Of those, about 120,000 have state permits on file. "Just do the math," Gene Pine of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection says. "There's probably close to 200,000 wells that are largely or relatively unaccounted for in the commonwealth."
So finding old wells can require a good amount of forensic work. To find one, you can employ high-tech radar or use a musty antique survey map. Whatever method you choose, it's going to be a time-intensive effort.
Laurie Barr knows this. She's spent the last two years driving across northern Pennsylvania, hunting for wells.
Until recently, Barr had no inkling that abandoned wells could be dangerous. Then she heard about a house in northwest Pennsylvania that blew up last year. State regulators centered their investigation of the incident on gas from an abandoned well, drilled in 1881 and located about 300 feet from the home.
"I thought, whoa, what the eff?" Barr recalls. "Can you imagine stepping out to shovel snow and your whole house goes poof?"
Ever since, Barr has made hunting down abandoned wells her life's calling. Earlier this year, she launched an online "scavenger hunt," encouraging others to look for wells and pass along their locations and information.
Barr has plotted about 100 new wells since her hunt began in November. She drives me to a northwest Pennsylvania forest to point one out. It's a jagged, rusty pipe sticking out of the ground. "Depending on the pressure underground, or the water table, this pours with water," she says.
The Department of Environmental Protection knows about this well, but won't be plugging it anytime soon. That's because well-plugging funds are limited, so state regulators triage their list of wells. If an old well isn't near a water source or people, it will likely stay unplugged.
We head north to a town along the New York/Pennsylvania border, where Barr points to pipes poking out of streams. "This is like a 13-year-old's bedroom with all the pizza boxes laying all over the floor. They're not being responsible," says Barr. "This area has a lot of old pizza boxes laying around. They haven't cleaned up their mess."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's an occasion where the present crashes into the past. Natural gas drilling has shaken up the domestic energy landscape and Pennsylvania is at the heart of that. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has brought a lot of money and jobs to the state and a lot of wells. Thousands have been drilled in the past few years. But this is not Pennsylvania's first energy boom. The world's first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania followed by hundreds of thousands more, all of them now out of use.
As Scott Detrow of member station WITF in Harrisburg reports, when new wells meet old wells, bad things can happen.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: That's a geyser erupting alongside a rural road in northeast Pennsylvania this summer. Without warning it started blasting water and natural gas 30 feet into the air. Natural gas is mostly methane and it can be flammable. In this YouTube video, a landowner asks a firefighter what's happening.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So there's nothing in there, nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't think we can shut it with fire.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's too much right there.
DETROW: The geyser spewed for about a week and it just so happened that right nearby, Shell was operating some natural gas wells tapped into Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale. Was there a link? Yes, but it's a bit more complicated than you'd think. Here's Shell spokeswoman Kelly OpDeWeegh.
KELLY OPDEWEEGH: Our evaluation of the methane release indicates that the abandoned Butters Well likely did play a role.
DETROW: The abandoned Butters Well had been there for 80 years before Shell started drilling in the area. It was drilled in 1932 on a farm owned by Mr. W. J. Butters. All these wells, the new Shell operations and the old Butter site run through underground pockets of natural gas. Here's what happened. As Shell drilled into a gas pocket, it put pressure on the underground pocket forcing the gas to look for a way to ease the stress.
The gas found that old abandoned well and it used its pathway to shoot to the surface.
FRED BALDASSARE: Gas always wants to go from high pressure to low pressure so that old abandoned well represents a low pressure zone, a natural migration pathway, because it's always trying to seek that, much just like water wants to go downhill, gas wants to move to a low pressure zone.
DETROW: That's Fred Baldassare. He investigated this sort of thing for 15 years at Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. Sitting in his office near Pittsburgh, Baldassare plays me another video of another geyser, this one from 2008.
BALDASSARE: That one was a fairly dramatic one because the geyser threw 90-feet of film material vertically. That was a very dramatic one.
DETROW: This geyser had the same dynamics. The underground gas feeling the squeeze from a new well looked for a way to come out. It comes across this old well, a perfect elevator to the surface if it hasn't been properly sealed with cement. If it makes it above ground this flammable gas can gather in water wells, basements or in extreme cases, spout like a fountain. So the big challenge for regulators and drilling companies is to find these old wells before it's too late.
It's not easy, because most of these wells are nearly impossible to find. People were drilling for oil and gas for nearly a century before Pennsylvania set down rules for documenting wells. As time went on, cities and towns were built on top of them and forests grew back. Regulators estimate there are probably 200,000 abandoned wells. At best, they know where four percent of them are.
Laurie Barr knows this. She's spent more than two years driving around northern Pennsylvania, looking for wells. We get out of her car in the middle of the forest. She climbs up a steep hill and into the woods to show me a rusty, slimy, jagged pipe, an old well head.
LAURA BARR: The thing that happens, depending on the pressure, underground or the water table, this pours with water.
DETROW: Barr says she never thought too much about abandoned wells until a nearby home blew up last year.
BARR: And I just thought, whoa, you know, like, what the F, you know? Can you imagine, like, stepping out into your driveway to shovel your snow and your whole house goes poof?
DETROW: State regulators blame a leaky abandoned well drilled in the 1880s. In this case, a new well was not involved. All on its own, gas found its way into the well and then into the home. Soon Barr was on a mission. She read every report she could find about abandoned wells and began studying old property records and hiking through the woods to find them. She organized an online well scavenger hunt where other people can add well sightings to her growing database.
BARR: This is like a 13-year-old's bedroom with all the pizza boxes laying all over the floor, you know, and they're not being responsible. They haven't cleaned up their mess.
DETROW: Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection does not have enough money to plug all the abandoned wells it's found. Gene Pine runs Pennsylvania's well-plugging division. He says the state can only do triage.
GENE PINE: A well that's been out there and there's no evidence at all that it's leaking oil or venting gas and it's not near a home or it's not near a surface water body, like a stream or a lake, then that would be given a lower priority.
DETROW: The program is funded by a 150 to $250 surcharge on well permits and has plugged around 20 wells so far this year. Since it began the project in 1989, the unit has plugged about 2800 wells. That means there's still about 200,000 to go and all that in the midst of a new drilling boom. For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow.
INSKEEP: And that report comes to us from State Impact, a collaboration of NPR and local member stations which explores how state level issues affect American lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.