Monday, September 28, 2015

Abandoned poorly covered oil and gas wells leading to safety concerns in rural communities

An unknown number of abandoned oil and natural gas wells, some open holes, others plugged with dirt or logs, have for decades "leaked oil, natural gas and brine into soil and drinking water and posed an explosion risk" in many rural areas, Shane Hoover reports for Gatehouse Media. "The danger is often hidden. Hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells were never properly mapped. Many of the companies that drilled them no longer exist. Abandoned wells lurk beneath homes and buildings in Ohio; under the busy streets of Los Angeles and the sparse Oklahoma plains; and in parks, backyards, forests, cornfields and cemeteries from Appalachia to the Pacific Ocean." (Gatehouse photo by Michael Balash: This abandoned well in Pennsylvania's Hillman State Park was found by a helicopter carrying magnetic sensors.)

Abandoned wells, or orphan wells, "are the unwanted legacy of 150 years of drilling booms and busts," Hoover writes. "Now those old wells pose a new danger as the country rides another petroleum boom driven by hydraulic fracturing techniques that unlock vast new reserves. Between 2009 and 2014, U.S. annual oil production jumped 62 percent to 3.2 billion barrels. Annual natural gas production grew 26 percent to 27 trillion cubic feet. Together that’s $1.8 trillion of new production, at contemporary prices. Most drilling is concentrated in Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Louisiana—a list that includes states with large numbers of abandoned wells."

In 1879, 20 years after the oil and gas boom began, "New York was the first state to make drillers plug unproductive wells," Hoover writes. "Other states followed. But the early rules were designed to keep water from flooding oil deposits. Groundwater protection only became important decades later. Even with requirements, drillers plugged old wells on the cheap. The logs, clay and junk—even baseballs—used for plugs were temporary at best."

"According to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, wells drilled before 1930 generally were not plugged with cement," Hoover writes. "And cement plugs used before the arrival of quality standards in 1952 didn’t always harden properly. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million wells were drilled before 1930. A fifth of them produced nothing, and the average life of producing wells ranged from eight years in 1890 to 21 years in 1930. That left a lot of old wells across the country with questionable plugs or no plugs at all."

"In 2011, a Groundwater Protection Council study found that abandoned wells caused 41 incidents of groundwater contamination in Ohio between 1983 and 2007 and another 30 in Texas between 1993 and 2008. None of those incidents was related to fracking," Hoover writes. "A U.S. Geological Survey study from 1988 found that brine from abandoned wells polluted part of the groundwater supply for 50,000 people in West Point, Ky., and nearby Fort Knox."

While some states are crafting rules for abandoned wells, one of the biggest problems is finding them, Hoover writes. One method for locating them is drone usage, which could give states "a more efficient way to find, and ultimately plug, their dangerous legacies of abandoned wells," Hoover writes.

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