Abandoned wells provide pathways for methane gas to seep to the surface, where it can, under the right settings, trigger explosions. That’s what happened in Bradford. So homeowners in areas where a lot of wells have been drilled have a compelling reason to know whether abandoned wells are located nearby.
The energy industry has a compelling reason, too, with all the new drilling going on in Pennsylvania. Active drilling operations don’t often cross paths with an old well, but when they do the results can be dramatic. In Tioga County this summer, a well Shell was drilling is believed to have interacted with an abandoned well drilled in 1932, producing a 30-foot geyser of gas and water that sprayed out of the ground for more than a week.
Yet the whereabouts of the vast majority of these old wells remains a mystery. Time has marched on in the decades since the wells were first drilled. Trees and brush have covered their holes. Scrap collectors have pried metal casing – often the most obvious sign of a well’s presence – out of the ground. And towns and cities have been built on top of them.
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.
The first stop is often the county courthouse or the local historical society. Lease agreements, farm line maps or geological surveys note the locations of old wells. Although as Gene Pine, who heads the Department of Environmental Protection division that focuses on finding and plugging abandoned wells warns, “a dot on a map does not necessarily mean right now there is an active abandoned well there. Many times they were dry holes, they were planned but never drilled. Many times operators, when service time was done, they plugged the wells on their own.”
Historic, aerial photos can help, too. Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Penn State University have created an online database of aerial photographs called Penn Pilot. The oldest series of pictures was taken in 1937, a time when oil and gas drilling was booming in western Pennsylvania.
An aerial photo of Oil City, taken in 1937
“See those dots? Those are all old oil wells,” says Jay Parrish, who served as Pennsylvania’s chief geologist for nearly a decade. He’s looking at images of Oil City, Venango County, taken in 1937. Parrish is looking for rigs, clearings, access roads – any sign of drilling activity. “This is the only evidence we have, in many cases, of where a well was drilled. Sometimes the only way you’ll know is to look at a photo and say, ‘Oh, a well was drilled here.’”
Parrish spearheaded the efforts to put the database of aerial photos online. The pictures come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They’ve been in the state’s possession for decades, and were housed in “a very nice library at the geological survey,” explains Parrish. “But you had to physically get them, or get them mailed to you.” When Parrish became Pennsylvania’s top geologist, he pushed to digitize the photographs, and publish them on a public website. The project was funded by royalties generated from drilling in state forests.
As state geologist, Parrish had a wide range of responsibilities — “water, oil and gas, minerals, faults, sinkholes, hazards. Anything that involves rocks,” he says — but Pennsylvania’s 200,000 abandoned wells were always on his mind. “My staff in Pittsburgh made me aware of it from the first day I was on the job. They said, ‘This is a real problem. Look at all these holes.’ It’s always been a problem. But it’s one of the things that you put on the backburner and say, ‘What can I do? There’s no money for this.’”
In the search for abandoned wells, the PennPilot database has its limitations. Drilling had been going on for nearly 80 years before the first photos were taken. By 1937, towns had been built and land had been reclaimed over thousands of wells.
‘You Don’t Think of The Wells Still Being There’
So if you really want to find abandoned wells, you need to get out into fields and forests and look for them. That’s where Laurie Barr comes in.
The environmental activist says most people in Bradford are familiar with the area’s long experience with energy drilling — the local McDonald’s has a brown pumpjack in its parking lot, producing oil from a 140-year-old well. But they know less about all the wells that were hastily abandoned when the oil or gas played out. “You don’t know,” Barr says. “You haven’t heard of methane migration and you don’t think of the wells still being there.” These wells are a major problem in the area near Bradford: the Department of Environmental Protection’s database of known abandoned wells lists more than 3,000 in McKean County alone.
Barr has plotted about 100 new wells since her hunt began in November. She had to pause it during the summer, since growing grass and flowers make it harder to find wells. “Sometimes all that’s left is a little pipe sticking out of the ground,” she explains. “With everything grown in summer you can walk right past and not see one.”
Some stand out though, if you know where to look. South of Bradford, near the Allegheny National Forest, Barr pulls her van to the side of the highway and climbs up a steep embankment and into the woods, to show me an abandoned well.
Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania
Laurie Barr points to an abandoned well near the Allegheny National Forest