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Perilous Pathways: How Drilling Near An Abandoned Well Produced a Methane Geyser

A geyser of methane and gas sprays out of the ground near a Shell drilling site in Tioga County. StateImpact Pennsylvania obtained this picture from a nearby landowner.

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 Union Township, Tioga County, the Morris Run Coal company had just finished drilling a gas well on a farm owned by Mr. W.J. Butters.

The Butters well was 5,385 feet deep, and lined with four layers of metal casing. Morris Run Coal had a bit of trouble drilling it, though. Two different times, according to the company’s drilling log, workers hit pockets of gas that “blew tools up [the well’s] hole.”

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.

The geyser wasn’t the only way the methane leak manifested itself. At the Ralston Hunting Club, a water well inside a cabin overflowed, flooding the building. Methane bubbled out from a nearby creek, as well. Shell asked the handful of nearby landowners to temporarily evacuate their homes while the company worked with well control specialists, a fire department and state environmental regulators to bring the leak under control.

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 a nearby Shell well 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 — possibly some of the same pockets the Morris Run Coal company ran into  in 1932. 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.

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Perilous Pathways: How Abandoned Wells Can Contribute To Methane Migration Problems

Methane is a flam­ma­ble, odor­less gas that exists within under­ground shale for­ma­tions.  Because of the porous, intertwined rock formations that many parts of Pennsylvania sit on top of, the gas can naturally seep to the surface. Methane can be dangerous when it migrates into water wells or basements.

Orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells create a natural pathway for methane to migrate from. The process can be accelerated when an active well is drilled into the same formation the abandoned well is tapped into. This occurrence — called “communication” — is extremely rare, but it can create major problems at the surface. A 30-foot geyser of gas and water that burst through the ground in Tioga County in June was likely caused by Marcellus Shale drilling near an abandoned well.

This graphic shows how methane gas can make its way from deep underground into a basement, water well or the ground.

STATEIMPACT REPORTING, GRAPHIC PRODUCED BY YAN LU

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