ProPublica: Abandoned wells pose water threat

April 6, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Earlier this week, ProPublica continued its great reporting on oil and gas drilling’s environmental problems, with a piece about the potential threats to water supplies from abandoned wells.

The piece was headlined Deteriorating Oil and Gas Wells Threaten Drinking Water, Homes Across the Country, and was published in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has launched a separate section of its website focused on oil and gas drilling issues. The story reports:

In the last 150 years, prospectors and energy companies have drilled as many as 12 million holes across the United States in search of oil and gas. Many of those holes were plugged after they dried up. But hundreds of thousands were simply abandoned and forgotten, often leaving no records of their existence.

Government reports have warned for decades that abandoned wells can provide pathways for oil, gas or brine-laden water to contaminate groundwater supplies or to travel up to the surface. Abandoned wells have polluted the drinking water source for Fort Knox, Ky. [2], and leaked oil into water wells in Ohio and Michigan. Similar problems have occurred in Texas, New York, Colorado and other states where drilling has occurred.

The story continued:

… As the nation’s latest drilling boom continues, abandoned wells have begun attracting more attention, particularly in states where the earth is already pock-marked with holes left by earlier waves of extraction. New wells sometimes disturb layers of rock and dirt near fragile old wells, leading to new cases of contamination.

The most recent effort to count the nation’s unplugged wells was a survey [4] published in 2008 by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a multistate agency made up of regulators and industry representatives. It found that states had located nearly 60,000 wells that needed to be plugged — and estimated that as many as a million more may be out there. In Pennsylvania alone, regulators estimate that 184,000 wells were drilled before records were kept. Many of those wells were plugged with stumps, rocks or nothing at all.

Indeed, here in West Virginia, I did a story many years ago (subscription required) — back in 1997 — about our state’s mounting problems related to abandoned oil and gas wells:

The DEP estimates that between 19,000 and 45,000 abandoned oil and natural gas wells are scattered across West Virginia.

Most of the wells are located in a five-county region surrounding Parkersburg.

Ritchie County has the most, with 2,449. Pleasants County has 1,533, Doddrige 1,405, Wetzel 1,136 and Tyler 1,115. Kanawha County has 614 abandoned wells.

No one knows for sure how many of those are leaking into water supplies. No one can say exactly how many are contaminating coal seams, making it unsafe for them to be mined.

But DEP officials believe that more than 1,800 wells pose immediate threats to public health and the environment.

“It’s kind of scary when you think about it,” said James Martin, a geologist who manages the DEP Office of Oil and Gas abandoned wells program. “It’s not a problem you can solve overnight.” In some ways, Horseneck Run is lucky. The wells there qualified for federal cleanup money. Thousands of other wells won’t.

What’s the problem like here today? Well, this April 2010 presentation from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection reports:

There are approximately 12,000 (post-29) abandoned oil and gas wells in WV. Around 4500 of these are considered “orphaned”.

Of all known abandoned wells, approximately 4,521 are listed as operator unknown. About 35% of the abandoned wells OOG has on record. Approximately 5,694 abandoned wells are currently registered to known operators that do not have an abandoned well initiative compliance agreement—approximately 45% of the abandoned wells OOG has on record.

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