2021 Production from Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Wells
Feature Image: Mark West Processing Plant, Washington County, PA. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, March 2021.
While FracTracker is generally more concerned with the numerous impacts resulting from extraction and related activities of the oil and gas industry, sometimes it is worth taking a look at production values in order to get a sense of the status of the industry as a whole. In this article, we focus on data obtained from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) production report.
2021 Production of Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Wells
This interactive map looks at production totals and calculations of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas wells for 2021. The map is symbolized by daily production in thousands of cubic feet (Mcf).
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.
View Full Size Map | Updated 4/1/1900 | Map Tutorial
Before we dive into the numbers, it is important to understand a few details about the data that we are looking at. First, it is necessary to discuss some terminology and abbreviations.
- Mcf – Thousands of cubic feet. Operators report production to DEP in Mcf.
- MMcf – Millions of cubic feet. One thousand Mcf equals one MMcf. Such conversions are useful for dealing with larger amounts of gas.
- Bcf – Billions of cubic feet. One million Mcf equals 1 Bcf. Some newer unconventional wells in Pennsylvania produce gas in this range over the course of a year.
- Tcf – Trillions of cubic feet. One billion Mcf equals 1 Tcf. Total gas production in Pennsylvania over the course of a year is reported in this range.
- Bbl – Barrels. One barrel equals 42 gallons.
Next, it is important to point out that all production values are self-reported, meaning that DEP requires the operators to complete these records, but there is no in-field verification of any of the numbers. This dataset might show us, for example, that there are 213 wells that reported producing one thousand cubic feet or less in 2021, but can do little to vouch for the veracity of such claims. Data errors happen, and some observers probably wouldn’t be shocked if they learned of an operator fudging the data. Also related to data quality, there are some wells on the report that lack location data, spud dates, or other information, which can obviously impact our ability to map or analyze these sites.
It’s also important to understand how the data are released by DEP, and what we’ve done to make understanding these reports a little bit easier. The state’s conventional oil and gas wells report totals once per year for each applicable category. Operators of unconventional wells are required to make similar reports, but on a monthly basis. The original production report contained 192,335 records, which we have reduced to 61,213 by combining production figures for unconventional wells into a single annual total. 2,075 of these do not appear on the map due to missing location data.
DEP collects data from the various operators on three types of production – gas, reported in Mcf and oil and condensate, both of which are reported in barrels. Here a summary of the data in those reports:
|Total Production||Producing Wells||Per Well Production|
|Category||Gas (Mcf)||Condensate (Bbl)||Oil (Bbl)||Gas||Condensate||Oil||Gas (Mcf)||Condensate (Bbl)||Oil (Bbl)|
Figure 1. Summary of 2021 production for Pennsylvania wells by well category and hydrocarbon type. Total Production refers to the total quantity of each hydrocarbon produced statewide. Producing Wells refers to the number of wells in each category that reported at least some amount of each type. Per Well Production represent the average (mean) production per well and was calculated by dividing the Total Production by the number of Producing Wells. All figures are rounded to the nearest integer.
Although there are nearly four times as many conventional wells reporting gas production as unconventional wells, the unconventional wells account for a whopping 99.4% of statewide production in Pennsylvania. On average, it takes 626 conventional wells to equal the production of one unconventional well, per this self-reported data.
Now we are going to take a look at the gas production value of wells relative to their age for all wells that reported any amount of gas production in 2021, with one chart each for unconventional and conventional wells. The age of each well is calculated in days starting at the spud date and the end date for each well is January 1, 2022. Note that any wells with an unknown spud date (listed as “1/01/1800” in the data as a default date) were excluded because we can’t determine the age of those wells. Wells reporting no production were also excluded, meaning that those appearing near the bottom of the charts are just above a value of 0 Mcf for the year.
Figure 2. Unconventional production in Pennsylvania in 2021 by age of well in days. Data obtained from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) production report.
2005 generally marks the start of the shale boom in Pennsylvania. For reference, January 1, 2005 would have an age of 6,209 days on this chart. We can see that there are a small number of wells that are older than that. This is because there are a handful of wells that were drilled into formations like the Marcellus Shale before unconventional techniques were typically applied, which were retroactively defined as unconventional. As we have seen in Figure 1 above, the mean gas production for unconventional wells in 2021 was around 756 million cubic feet, a mark that is less than halfway between the 0 and the 2 on vertical axis. Of the 10,014 wells shown here, just 52 are on the top half of the map with values of 6 Bcf or greater.
Figure 3. Conventional production in Pennsylvania in 2021 by age of well in days. Data obtained from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) production report.
The scatter plot of the production of conventional wells by age looks a little different. The first difference that sticks out is the scale, as this is measured in Mcf rather than Bcf, and the scale showing the number of days is much greater as well. The oldest well here is listed at 44,561 days, which works out to January 1, 1900. This seems like it was probably entered as a dummy date somewhere along the way. Figure 1 shows us that the mean gas production for these wells is 1,207 Mcf (about 1.2 MMcf), which is just barely off of the bottom margin of the graph.
There are a couple of other notable features about this scatter plot. The distribution shows a cluster of wells that are around 5,000 days old, with a noticeable vertical grouping around that age. This is probably accurate – while conventional drilling didn’t entirely stop with the arrival of the unconventional drilling practices, it has dropped off precipitously. Just 15 wells out of 21,580 producing conventional wells in this chart were drilled in 2021.
Exactly one conventional well had production higher than the average unconventional well; the Babcock 1 well in Swissvale, Allegheny County and operated by R Harris Gas & Oil Inc produced 854 MMcf, or about four times as much gas as the runner-up in the category. Sharp-eyed readers might note that this production value does not appear on Figure 3, above. This is because it does not have a spud date in the dataset, so the exact age of the well could not be calculated. We did look this well up on eFACTS, and found that this well was first permitted way back in 1995. If they started drilling right away, it would be 9,853 days old as of January 1, 2022. The production figure stands out far enough that we checked the 2020 production report, where the same well reported producing around 872 MMcf, so perhaps it is just an extreme outlier and not an error.
And finally, there seems to be a strange blip with several wells reporting around 100 million cubic feet. There are 14 wells reporting exactly that amount. Of these, 10 have the operator listed as “Hollobaugh Paul A,” three are “Copeland Gas LLC,” and one is “Elder Oil & Gas Co.” Some of these wells date as far back as 1950, while several more have unknown spud dates. We wonder if it might be worth checking those gas meters to make sure they are operating properly.
For gas production, plotted production values against the age of the well. For the liquids, we are instead focused on mapping the locations. Although the liquid totals are included on the dynamic production map, that map is symbolized with gas production, making condensate and oil production difficult to visualize without clicking on thousands of map icons.
Figure 4. Pennsylvania wells producing condensate in 2021. Unconventional wells are shown in yellow while conventional wells are shown in purple.
Before we look at that, we should have a quick discussion about condensate and natural gas liquids NGLs). McKinsey & Company defines condensate as follows:
Condensate is a mixture of light liquid hydrocarbons, similar to a very light (high API) crude oil. It is typically separated out of a natural gas stream at the point of production (field separation) when the temperature and pressure of the gas is dropped to atmospheric conditions.
Condensate is mostly composed of NGLs and naphtha range material, and has an API from 45 to 70+.
While condensate does contain NGLs, the two terms are not interchangeable with respect to how production is calculated in Pennsylvania. As McKinsey & Company points out, this refers to liquids that are removed at the well site and does not include NGLs that are separated from the gas further downstream, such as at the enormous cryogenic facility in Houston, PA, for example. Wherever it is separated, gas that contains a significant quantity of NGLs is referred to as wet gas.
Mark West Processing Plant, Washington County, PA. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, March 2021. See more photos like this.
Still, there is certainly a correlation between the two. The map indicates that the great majority of condensate producing wells are located in Washington County, the epicenter of wet gas production in the Marcellus, and most of the rest of the distribution are located in wet gas areas as well.
The state’s conventional wells reported a cumulative total of 464 barrels in 2021, or about 0.009% of the statewide total.
Figure 6. Pennsylvania wells producing oil in 2021. Unconventional wells are shown in red while conventional wells are shown in in gray.
Oil drilling in Pennsylvania dates back to the famous Drake Well, which went into operation before the US Civil War. The industry within the state was still well known in the early 20th Century, spawning brands such as Pennzoil, Quaker State, and Gulf Oil. All of these companies have since been purchased or merged with larger companies. Perhaps this is fitting, as Pennsylvania really isn’t a major player in oil production any more. Data from the US Energy Information Administration shows us that Pennsylvania accounted for just 0.16% of the nation’s total crude production for 2021, falling behind sixteen other states and federally controlled waters. Note that this data source combines oil and condensate production, and according to the state source, oil accounts for just 13% of this liquid production. We don’t know the ratio of condensate to oil in other states, so we cannot rank Pennsylvania on oil production alone.
While just a shadow of what it once was, there are still 15,614 wells reporting some amount of oil production, ranging from 0.01 to 15,110.7 barrels. Just 50 wells, or 0.3% of the total, produced at least 1,000 barrels in 2021. The average production from conventional wells reporting oil is just 47 barrels per year. Unconventional wells have a much higher average with 1,154 barrels per well, but there are just 73 wells contributing to that total. Overall, conventional drilling still accounts for the lion’s share of oil production in Pennsylvania.
1,121 oil producing wells could not be mapped due to missing location data.
Is it Time to End Conventional Production?
Inspection and maintenance of oil and gas wells costs money for operators as well as the state. Complaints from neighbors must be addressed, liquids must be hauled away and processed, corroded infrastructure such as pipes, valves, and tanks must be replaced, and spills must be remediated, among other tasks. At what point is a well more trouble than it is worth?
The discussion around when to plug wells usually skips over this question. With states receiving a new infusion of federal funds for plugging and remediating orphaned and abandoned well through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, it has been an important and frequently discussed topic in oil and gas producing states recently. But these funds will go to wells that are already orphaned and abandoned. Abandoned wells are those where the operator is no longer producing hydrocarbons, and orphaned wells are abandoned wells where the operator is unknown or no longer economically viable.
It makes sense to focus on these orphaned and abandoned wells first, but the state’s conventional well production data points to a looming tsunami of problems, as tens of thousands of wells are nearly ready to be removed from the state’s active inventory.
It is clear that those wells producing just a fraction of one Mcf are not economically viable, but where does one draw the line? There are two definitions that are relevant to this discussion. Marginal wells are those where production costs are greater than the value of hydrocarbons produced. These can be difficult to quantify due to variable costs and oil & gas commodity prices. For this reason, the US Internal Revenue Service defines wells near the end of viable production as “stripper wells” – those that produce less than 90 Mcf per day or 15 barrels of oil per day.
The Ohio River Valley Institute estimates that there are more than 177,000 such wells in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The production data in Pennsylvania shows us that of the 61,213 wells on the report, just 10,472 (17%) produce more than the 90 Mcf per day threshold for gas. For conventional wells, this amounts to just 86 wells out of 48,676 (0.2%.)
For condensate, there are just 217 wells (0.4%) that produce above the stripper well threshold of 15 barrels per day, all of which are classified as unconventional. Just 17 wells produce more oil than the 15 barrel per day limit for stripper wells, 12 of which are conventional.
The Take Away
Taking the three categories together, the most generous math from this self-reported data shows that only 98 out of the state’s 48,676 (0.2%) conventional wells are not categorized as stripper wells for tax purposes. A great many of these are financially underwater, but plugging costs in the state average $68,000, which presents a significant disincentive to properly retire the asset. While we don’t know the finances of these individual wells, it is apparent that the overwhelming majority of the state’s inventory of conventional wells are near the end of their productive lives.
If we were to say, “All conventional wells in Pennsylvania are economically unviable,” that probably is inaccurate, but not much further from the truth than a rounding error. If we were to say, “Collectively, conventional wells in Pennsylvania are more trouble than they are worth,” that would be impossible to refute.
References & Where to Learn More
- Original data source used in this article: https://www.depgreenport.
- FracTracker’s reprocessed dataset used in this article: https://app.box.com/s/
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This is a fascinating article. I have long suspected that the cost of extracting fossil gas exceeds the revenue it will produce, and your article explains why the funding keeps rolling in anyway. These costs will be passed on to anyone still using methane for heating, cooking, or buying electricity from the grid.