Ed Atwood pushes aside a piece of thorny brush as he inches down the slope of his wooded hillside property. On a rainy Thursday in March, the fallen leaves that coat the ground outside of his house in Warren, Pennsylvania, are slippery. “We’ll go down there,” he instructs.
The 78-year-old gestures toward a rusty metal pipe in his backyard that he’s been monitoring for four decades. It’s roughly six inches in diameter and sticks about a foot out of the ground, with cement casing eroding around its circumference and torn black rubber peeking out its top. Several skinnier pipes jut out of its side, one of which has been covered with a plastic Ziploc bag. It would be easy to miss if you’re not looking for it — even easier to trip over on wet, treacherous days.
It’s an abandoned oil well, likely once used for conventional drilling, that was left uncapped after it peaked in productivity and was no longer considered profitable by its operator. It sits 10 or 15 feet from two tanks, each filled with thick, sludgy oil — black, with a silvery sheen coating the top. All three are a stone’s throw away from his back door. Several pumpjacks sit a few hundred feet from where he stands, dotting his neighbor’s backyard.
It’s one of an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, left inactive and unplugged by companies that deem them no longer lucrative. They linger in backyards, punctuate forest trails, line highway shoulders and lurk near schools and buildings. They’re the 10th largest contributor to atmospheric emissions of methane — a greenhouse gas that’s 86 times more potent in its warming potential than carbon dioxide — in the U.S. In addition to emitting methane, they carry the risk of leaking toxins into the soil and waterways that surround them.
Ed Atwood monitors an abandoned oil tank left in his backyard in Warren, PA. Photo by Audrey Carleton.
The Keystone State has the highest concentration of these wells in the country, but only around 12,000 (2%-4%) are documented by the state. Among those that have been located, the government is plugging just 10 to 12 per year, on average. Lacking proper funding mechanisms, at the current pace it will take millennia to plug them all. Interviews with dozens of Pennsylvanians and a Capital & Main analysis of legislative journal records, campaign finance data, archives and inspection reports, and citizen complaints obtained via right-to-know requests have found that the fossil fuel industry has worked hard to keep it this way, and the state government has done little to stop it.
The passage of the federal $1 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, signed into law on Nov. 15, stands to change this situation. It devotes $4.7 billion to the cleanup of orphaned wells — for which no operator can be located — on state, private and tribal lands. This could significantly reduce the number of orphaned wells in Pennsylvania. Though the Department of the Interior has yet to divide these funds by state, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette estimated in April that the state could see tens of millions of dollars from the federal government for this project. But advocates in the state wonder if this will be enough to solve a problem that’s been neglected for nearly 200 years in the birthplace of oil and gas.
Though Pennsylvania’s orphaned and abandoned well registry documents more than 8,900 methane-emitting wells, this is a mere fraction of the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 that exist within the state.
Think you might live near an abandoned well? See if it’s on the state’s plugging registry below. Hover over each well to see its operator/leaseholder (“farm name”), county, status, and location.
Decades of Resident Complaints Paint a Picture of a Legacy of Fear
Many of the details of Atwood’s well — who drilled it, how old it is and how deeply it penetrates into the earth — remain a mystery to him, despite having lived next to it for 40 years and reporting it to state regulators countless times over that period.
He’s long feared the well would pose a threat to his health and his financial well-being. First on his list of concerns is interference with his aquifer. It’s not uncommon for oil and gas wells like Atwood’s, drilled vertically for thousands of feet, to intercept with shallow aquifers, around a hundred feet underground. Aquifer water stores can corrode a well’s pipe and cement casing, leading toxins to leak into the waterway from which people drink and bathe.
That’s what Atwood suspects happened around five years ago, when a sludgy, orange substance appeared in his toilet bowls, sinks and shower faucet.
“I figured out how to do it,” Atwood says, recalling the cleaning habit he developed to dispose of the sludge. “First, I dipped it out with rubber gloves and put it in a bucket. Then, I got a shop vac, and I’d suck it out. Every week I had to suck that shit out.”
“We didn’t drink the water, but we bathed in it,” he says. “That was a major mistake.”
Atwood and his wife both developed rashes on their body that they say appeared shortly after bathing in the polluted water. The welts, a few inches in diameter, continue to be painful, Atwood says, and no remedy he’s tried has worked.
Hundreds of citizen complaints obtained via state archives and right-to-know requests show that Atwood is far from alone in his experience. Between 1985 and 1994, a number of McKean and Bradford County residents filed complaints about crude oil and toxins seeping into their water supplies and gardens, killing off vegetation and giving their water a salty, sulphuric taste. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) inspectors who responded to those complaints told residents to look out for skin rashes and to avoid bathing in the tainted water should they appear.
Pumpjacks in the yard of a homeowner in Bradford, PA. Oil and gas wells on residential properties are a common sight in the area. Photo: Audrey Carleton.
Complaints filed with the agency since 2000 reflect similar concerns, plus more serious grievances ranging from abandoned well tanks near a nursery school to potential health hazards. In June of 2012, a Warren County resident reported “strong oil and gas odors coming from an abandoned well next to their residence” that were “so strong they are impacting their health.” The well was placed on the state’s abandoned well list, where an inspector noted it would “be plugged when funds are available.”
The following April, a Jefferson County resident complained through Rep. Brian Smith that leaking gas from an abandoned well on their property was “making their entire family ill.” “Complainants are extremely concerned with the adverse health effects this leaking gas is causing for their young children,” the complaint reads. “Representative Smith’s office is requesting assistance in having this well plugged as soon as possible.” This well was one of 19 whose owner was found to be deceased, the responding inspector noted. “This well will be placed on the abandoned well list to be plugged by the Department,” the complaint says.
Though Atwood has long fought for his well to be plugged, he also suspects that, in oil-rich northwest Pennsylvania, plugging the well could become a Catch-22: Like many across the U.S., Atwood doesn’t own the rights to the minerals underneath his property, and once his abandoned well is plugged, the land could become fair game for new drilling. That could be dangerous. An unintended migration of methane gas between an orphaned well and an active one could cause an explosion.
~ Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, professor of engineering emeritus, Cornell University
Abandoned oil wells, like most oil and gas infrastructure, are associated with stray gas migration events, in which fluid and natural gas escape through holes in deteriorated or improperly constructed well pipes. In several cases, stray gas has been found inside homes and private waterways; in others it has been located near businesses; in one instance, it was detected near a senior care home; in another, it was located near a church.
In December of 2010 and February of 2011, two homes in Bradford, Pennsylvania — 34 miles east of Warren, where Atwood currently lives — exploded, and both incidents were tied to methane gas migration from nearby orphaned wells. Owners Robert and Beverly Butler, who were in their 70s at the time, were home when their house erupted in 2010 and suffered burns. A few months later, just six miles away, owner Thomas Federspiel was outside shoveling snow when his property went up in flames. A subsequent investigation tied the explosion to a nearby plugged well that was drilled in 1881.
Methane gas can also leak into drinking water. By itself, methane is typically nontoxic to ingest, says Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, professor of engineering emeritus at Cornell University, who’s studied stray gas migration across Pennsylvania and New York, but the presence of methane is typically an indication of the presence of other substances: anything from drilling fluid to oil or rust from pipe degradation. “Anything you put down a well — drilling fluids, stimulation fluids, fracking fluids — has the possibility of coming back up,” Ingraffea said.
Inhaling high concentrations of methane can also cause asphyxiation, Ingraffea notes. These cases are rare, but they do happen: In 1998, for instance, two Beaver County, Pennsylvania, teens (Brian Deitz, 17, and Patrick McConomy, 18) died by asphyxiation after inhaling a toxic amount of methane from an abandoned natural gas line. The well they were inhaling from was on a list of 28 to be plugged that year, the Post-Gazette reported at the time. The death prompted the DEP to request the public’s help in locating abandoned wells.
An abandoned oil drill rig in Allegheny National Forest. Photo: Audrey Carleton.
An influx of cash into Pennsylvania’s well cleanup program could mitigate these very real risks, taking a bite out of a centuries-old crisis. The state is known as the birthplace of the U.S. oil and gas industry, and many of Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells date back to the first oil boom of the late 1800s, have eroded with time and continue to emit methane to this day. Abandoned wells are responsible for an estimated 5%-8% of the state’s overall methane emissions.
For many of these wells, locating a producer to hold responsible for plugging is impossible (this subset of abandoned wells, which have no identified owner, are known as “orphaned,” and they are the focus of the near $5 billion investment via the Biden administration.) But even for those built after 1984, when the state first began requiring producers to plug wells they decommission, the mechanisms for enforcing this standard are weak.
When an oil company applies for a permit to drill a well in Pennsylvania, like in many other states, it is required to put forth a bond: Should the company decide to forgo plugging the well itself once it’s no longer lucrative, regulators can use the amount they’ve collected from the company upfront to safely seal it off on their behalf.
But the state’s required bond amounts are a fraction of the real cost to plug the wells. The average oil well costs between $20,000 and $40,000 to clean and cap, though Mary Kang, professor of civil engineering at McGill University, notes that this rate can vary tremendously between a few thousand and a few million dollars. Yet, companies are charged $2,500 for individual bonds for conventional (shallower, older) wells upfront, and between $4,000 and $10,000 for unconventional (deeper, newer wells, like fracking wells), depending on depth and type of bond. Companies can opt for a blanket bond — a higher, one-time flat fee that covers all drilling at a lower per-well cost. Blanket bonds for conventional wells run at $25,000 in total, and are generally more economical than paying per well. This makes it more financially lucrative to orphan a well and forfeit a bond than it is to properly plug it, and has led to a littering of old, polluting wells across the state. By contrast, Alaska, which has the highest bond minimum in the nation (at $100,000 per well) has only 15 abandoned wells on its cleanup list.
“If you look at the bond numbers in Pennsylvania, they’re very modest, they’re actually not in place for all wells in the state,” said Seth Pelepko, environmental program manager at the Bureau of Oil & Gas Planning and Program Management of the DEP in a November webinar. “If you look at the total amount of bonds we have associated with wells, and you divide it by the total number of wells, it’s really a very small amount. $15 per well.”
In April, the Post-Gazette reported that the proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden’s original writeup of the now $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, could throw Pennsylvania the lifeline it needs to begin meaningfully addressing its orphaned well problem. Pelepko told the outlet at the time that it would be “the opportunity of a lifetime” for the Orphaned or Abandoned Well Plugging Program.
The Pennsylvania DEP says it’s still reviewing the language of the bill and could not offer an estimate of how much it will receive.
How to Address a Legacy of Neglect
The new infrastructure plan prioritizes states like Pennsylvania, which have existing well cleanup programs and well numbers on the higher end. It also offers additional cash to those that strengthen their regulations around well abandonment; three days after the passage of the infrastructure bill, the state’s DEP announced plans to study environmental groups’ petitions to raise its bonding requirements. Put forth by the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter and five other climate advocacy groups, the petition suggests raising bonds for conventional wells from $2,500 to $38,000 per well, and for unconventional wells, from $10,000 to $83,000 per well. Ankit Jain, associate attorney at the Sierra Club, expects backlash from fossil fuel interests, but believes raising gaps is a vital first step to addressing a legacy of neglect.
“Industry is of course going to be opposed to these kinds of changes, because they have historically been opposed to having to pay the full cost of actually doing business in the state,” Jain said. “All we’re trying to do is make sure that they clean up after themselves, and that they’re paying to plug the wells that made them so much money — rather than the taxpayers of the state.”
Laurie Barr stands by an entrance to the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. Photo: Audrey Carleton.
If passed, a full-cost bond would address the demands of local activists like Laurie Barr, who has devoted hours upon hours to hunting for orphaned and abandoned wells, reporting them to the state and watching her reports go unaddressed in part because of budget limitations.
At its current rate of 10 to 12 per year, plugging them all will take the DEP thousands of years to finish, not accounting for the process of routine maintenance and replugging when cement casings crack or wear out over time. Federal dollars could help speed up the pace, especially when it comes to orphaned wells, for which there is no known producer to hold accountable for plugging. But Barr remains skeptical of any model that uses taxpayer funding for cleanup, because it could give fossil fuel companies the impression that they’re being let off the hook. “If it’s going to put oil workers to work plugging their wells, that’s going to be abused, just like everything else, and the state is going to help them,” Barr said. “And the taxpayers are going to have to foot the bill.”
A “Forever” Problem
In the years since the abandoned well on Atwood’s property leaked into his waterway, he has found a new way to access clean water: He installed a new line that taps into municipal water sources and delivers a drinkable supply into his home.
The line doesn’t deliver water at a high enough pressure on its own, so he also invested in a pump, which sits inside his house and keeps his supply flowing steadily. This process cost $20,000 upfront. Atwood also pays a monthly fee for water access.
His rashes remain painful, and the aquifer under his house has yet to be fixed. But his water is, for the time being, clean.
“I haven’t had a bit of trouble for almost four years now. And I do have pure water. But that’s a lot of money,” he says.
When asked why he’s footing the bill for clean water in lieu of the operator who contaminated his supply to begin with, Atwood doesn’t mince words: “Oh, they have lawyers,” he remarks, with certainty. “They hire a $150-an-hour lawyer to fight you. They knew it was polluted. And they were gonna leave it that way.”
“When you pollute water and pollute it forever, that’s what it is,” Atwood says. “Forever.
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