Pennsylvania Conventional Well Map Update
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While most of the attention on the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania has focused on the massive, unconventional well pads in recent years, there are hundreds of thousands of conventional wells in the state, and over 100,000 of those are still considered active. This article explores the state’s known inventory of conventional wells.
Conventional wells are often lost in the conversation around Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry. They’ve been around since the 1800s and produce just 2% of the state’s gas. But because of these factors, they’re under-regulated, and often don’t have emission reduction technology, allowing them to leak large volumes of dangerous, climate-changing gases.
An analysis of 2017 emission data by the Environmental Defense Fund found that conventional wells leaked more methane (an estimated 599,200 short tons) than unconventional wells. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. And leaky wells also pose immediate threat to public health. Toxins like hydrogen sulfide and benzene also leak from wells and can harm the health of people living nearby.
There are still thousands of active conventional wells in Pennsylvania and more are permitted each year. We’ve updated our conventional well map to help the public identify wells in their neighborhood and to remind state leaders that plans to manage the decline of the oil and gas industry and curb climate emissions must address conventional wells.
Watch Earthworks’ footage of fugitive emissions from conventional wells in Pennsylvania.
Conventional and Historical Wells in Pennsylvania
This map explores the state’s known inventory of conventional wells. View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view.
This map also includes historical wells. The historic well dataset shows 30,527 potential historic oil and gas well locations in southwestern Pennsylvania, identified from old mining maps.
Many consider unconventional wells to be the ones that use hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which is the process of injecting a water mixture into underground shale rock formations to fracture it. As such, the terms fracked and unconventional are often used interchangeably. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection defines an unconventional well as: a well that is drilled into an Unconventional formation, which is defined as a geologic shale formation below the base of the Elk Sandstone or its geologic equivalent where natural gas generally cannot be produced except by horizontal or vertical well bores stimulated by hydraulic fracturing.
The PA DEP defines an “Active” well as one where a “permit has been issued and well may or may not have been drilled or producing, but has not been plugged.”
Over the past decade, there have been an average of roughly 600 conventional wells drilled in the state per year, with numbers trending downward. There was a steep drop off in drilling new conventional wells in 2009, corresponding with the rise of unconventional drilling (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Wells drilled per year in Pennsylvania, 2001-2002. Source: PA DEP Open Data Portal
Roughly 89% of active wells listed in Pennsylvania’s database are conventional (note, active does not mean that the well has been drilled according to the PA DEP definition). However, unconventional wells make up the bulk of gas produced (Figure 2).
Fracking technology has exploded the shale rock beneath us, releasing gas from previously unreachable reserves and creating a much greater supply of fossil fuels than residential energy demands. For example, unconventional wells in Pennsylvania produced enough gas in 2018 to meet the residential consumption of everyone in the United States – plus an extra 1.7 trillion cubic feet.
Figure 2. Gas produced by conventional and unconventional wells, per year in Pennsylvania, 2001-2020. Source: PA DEP Production Reports
Where are they?
While unconventional wells make an arc from southwestern Pennsylvania to the Northeast, following the Marcellus Shale formation, conventional wells are most concentrated in the Northwest, particularly Warren and McKean counties.
Active Conventional Wells Concentration by Pennsylvania County
This map shows the concentration of conventional wells by Pennsylvania county. View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article.
There are roughly 185,000 conventional wells in the Pennsylvania DEP’s database. With that many wells, it’s not uncommon to come across conventional wells on farms, in forests, or in people’s backyards.
As mentioned before, roughly 100,000 of these wells are considered “active,” and included in our maps above (figure 3). Many of these active wells are likely low-producing wells that operators should plug, but have neglected to do so. That means there are over 84,000 wells with some other type of status. Every well that is not listed as active should ideally be plugged (either by the DEP, see DEP Plugged, or by its operator, see Plugged OG Well below), and state regulators should be managing the decline of the industry by plugging active wells and transitioning to alternative energy sources.
Figure 3. Conventional wells by status in Pennsylvania. Source: PA DEP Open Data Portal See page 35 of the DEP’s Data Dictionary for definitions of these terms
Unfortunately, just 26% of the wells in the DEP’s database are listed as plugged. Even worse, there are thousands more conventional wells in the state that are not in the Pennsylvania DEP’s database due to the poor mapping and regulation in the early days of the oil and gas industry.
Plugging these wells is essential for preventing toxic, climate-disrupting oil and gas from being released into the environment.
Loophole allows leaks to go unchecked
Meaningful climate action in Pennsylvania must address conventional wells. While Governor Wolf has proposed a rule that would reduce emissions released from oil and gas facilities, the rule exempts low-producing wells. As you can imagine, many of the low-producing wells are the older, very leaky, conventional wells.
According to an analysis by Earthworks, the top 10 operators of low-producing wells each made $5 million in revenue in 2019. If these operators are continuing to profit off the state’s resources, the least our state regulators could do is require them to comply with pollution control measures. Learn more about the ruling from Earthworks.
Centuries of fossil fuel development have left deep scars in Pennsylvania. Climate action and plans to manage the decline of this industry must address this historic impact. Anything less is to sacrifice the health of Pennsylvanians and disregard the United State’s re-commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.
The Take Away
Ongoing issues associated with conventional wells have been overshadowed by the explosion of unconventional oil and gas development, or what’s most commonly referred to as “fracking.” But their impact is significant. In Pennsylvania, there are 185,000 conventional wells on record and just 26% of those are plugged, meaning that the remainder are leaking significant amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane. In order to reach climate goals, leaders on the state and national level will need to act quickly to address unplugged wells.
Paulina Hruskoci contributed data analysis and mapping in this article. She is currently studying Geospatial Information Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. She plans to pursue a career in environmental policy advocacy
References & Where to Learn More
- Repairing the Damage from Orphan Wells and Abandoned Mine Lands. This pair of 2021 reports from Ohio River Valley Institute show how Appalachia can tackle the climate crisis while creating thousands of local jobs.
- New York State Oil & Gas Well Drilling: Patterns Over Time, an April 2021 update from FracTracker.
More notes on data from this article can be found in the Details sections of the interactive maps above.
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