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Abandoned Wells in Pennsylvania: We’re Not Doing Enough

By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern 

Fracking in Pennsylvania: The History

When driving through Pennsylvania, you can see what an impact oil and gas has had on the state. Towns like Oil City and Petrolia speak to the oil and gas industry’s long standing history here. In more recent history, Pennsylvania has been a prime fracking location because of the presence of the Marcellus shale formation that covers over half of the state. With more unconventional oil and gas exploration came impacts to communities, who were denied their right to “clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment” as defined by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Hydraulically fractured wells are often no longer profitable after just one stimulation, after which they are abandoned. Improperly abandoned wells wreak havoc on our communities and our environment. The number of improperly abandoned wells has been increasing over time as companies go bankrupt transfer wells to other companies. These wells can easily go undetected because they are often buried underground, leaving no traces at the surface level.

These unplugged abandoned wells are underneath our homes, our schools, and in our own backyards, negatively impacting our health and the environment.

FracTracker’s West Coast Coordinator Kyle Ferrar shows how abandoned wells are hiding all around us in his investigation of downtown Los Angeles. He used an infrared camera to visualize the plumes of methane and other volatile organic compounds spewing out of abandoned wells in the middle of streets.

 

Dangers of unplugged abandoned wells

The plugging process consists of filling the well with cement, ensuring that nothing leaks from the well into the surrounding ecosystem. Without that measure in place, the chemical-water solution used to frack the underlying shale, as well as any oil or natural gas still left in the well, can very easily seep into nearby aquifers or into close by waterways. Wells that are not plugged or are not plugged properly leak into nearby aquifers, releasing methane and other volatile organic compounds are continually released from the well into the atmosphere as well. This leakage into the atmosphere and ground water can have disastrous effects on our ecosystem and health.

Abandoned wells are also a dangerous threat because many of their locations are unknown. These wells can ruin the structural integrity of buildings and homes that are unknowingly built on top of them. The methane leaking out of the well is colorless and odorless, meaning that it can easily build-up in homes or elsewhere and cause explosions.

 Bankruptcy and Bonds

When an oil and gas company drills a well, they are responsible for making sure that it is plugged properly at the end of the well’s life. This is the case even if the company goes bankrupt. To do this, Pennsylvania government requires that the company put up a bond that is set aside to plug the well properly. This ensures that if the company does go bankrupt, the necessary funds are already set aside to plug the well. Normally, this bond takes the shape of a blanket bond amount of $25,000 which is intended to cover the total expenses that would be incurred in plugging all of the wells a company has in the state. Depending on the number of wells a company possesses, this could mean very little actually being set aside for each individual well.

A shallow well can cost between $8,000 to $10,000 plus, and up to $50,000 or more depending on how difficult it is to plug. In the case of Pennsylvania’s top oil and gas holder Diversified Gas & Oil PLC and its recently acquired. Company Alliance Petroleum Corp, this bond sets aside just $2 per well. With most other companies holding no more than 5,700 wells, this sets aside $4.40 per well. Where the bond amounts fall short in accounting for the cost to plug the hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells across the state, the rest of the cost falls at the feet of taxpayers.

The New Contract

The state government has started to recognize the severity of the situation as they are confronted with a mountain of costs in plugging these wells. To start to mitigate this, the government has recently settled with Diversified Gas & Oil. The company has been ordered to properly plug 1,058 abandoned wells. To do this they have signed on to a $7 million bond with $20,000 to $30,000 bonds for each additional abandoned or non-producing well that is acquired.

Although it is a great start to ensure that these two major companies have the proper bonding amount moving forward, this does not apply to all companies, whose likelihood of going bankrupt puts a lot of financial pressure on Pennsylvanian citizens. Also, these 1,058 wells are only the tip of the iceberg, with the DEP estimating that there are between 100,000 and 560,000 total abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, many of which still have unknown locations.

In the 2017 Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Report, it is stated that: “Currently, more abandoned wells are being added to the state’s inventory than are being addressed through permanent plugging through state-issued contracts. Since 2015, DEP has been able to fund the plugging of oil and gas wells only in emergency situations and/or when residents must be temporarily evacuated from their homes due to imminent threats that legacy wells pose when well integrity is compromised.” They (the DEP?) continue on by stating that, considering the historic operating costs and acknowledging the sheer number of wells, properly addressing es the abandoned wells will cost between $150 million and $3.7 billion. The $150 million is an estimation based on the scenario that no more historic legacy wells are discovered, and the $3.7 billion is based on if 200,000 more are found, a more likely scenario.

The funding to cover the costs of plugging these abandoned wells comes from surcharges of $150 and $200 established by the 1984 Oil and Gas Act for each oil well permit and gas well permit. The DEP has received fewer permits in recent years meaning that there are very little funds to resolve this issue. This means that eventually this public health and environmental burden will have to fall at the feet of the taxpayers.

This makes the state’s step in the right direction look more like a tip toe. With no real, substantial plans to locate and address the large amount of wells across the state, the government is putting their people at risk because these abandoned wells are not harmless.

Washington County Case study

 Washington County can be used as a window into the abandoned well crisis in Pennsylvania. This county sits in the middle of the Marcellus Shale formation, making it a key site for unconventional oil and gas development. According to the DEP, there are 215 abandoned, orphaned wells in Washington county, but realistically we know that there are likely many  more than that.

The Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA) has derived a dataset from historical sources to determine the possible locations of other abandoned wells. These historical documents include the WPA, Ksheet, and Hsheet collections. This data set highlights over 6,000 locations where an abandoned oil and gas well could be located.

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This is a testament to how many of these wells exist without our knowledge. If this difference in DEP records and possible wells is this great in Washington County, then we face the enormous potential problem of tens of thousands of additional abandoned wells that need to be resolved. The effects of these wells are real and they must be identified quickly.

These are some of the physical effects of abandoned wells:

 

Fig 1. A Collapsed Well Opening – A Physical Hazard (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

Fig. 2. Well Spouting Acid Water. Well later plugged by DEP (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

Fig. 3. Oil Seepage (photo credit:(photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

 

Fig. 4. Abandoned Well and Storage Tank (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

Pennsylvania is facing a mountain of an issue with decades of work ahead. The state must act quickly to ensure the health and protection of our people and our environment, which entails taking active steps to secure an adequate budget to resolve this issue. To start, the state should identify where all of the wells are, set up a financial plan that puts the cost of the plugging process for these wells back onto the oil and gas companies, and begin to take active measures to plug the wells quickly and efficiently.

https://www.kvpr.org/post/dormant-risky-new-state-law-aims-prevent-problems-idle-oil-and-gas-wells

Idle Wells are a Major Risk

Designating a well as “idle” is a temporary solution for operators, but comes at a great economic and environmental cost to Californians 

Idle wells are oil and gas wells which are not in use for production, injection, or other purposes, but also have not been permanently sealed. During a well’s productive phase, it is pumping and producing oil and/or natural gas which profit its operators, such as Exxon, Shell, or California Resources Corporation. When the formations of underground oil pools have been drained, production of oil and gas decreases. Certain techniques such as hydraulic fracturing may be used to stimulate additional production, but at some point operators decide a well is no longer economically sound to produce oil or gas. Operators are supposed to retire the wells by filling the well-bores with cement to permanently seal the well, a process called “plugging.”

A second, impermanent option is for operators to forego plugging the well to a later date and designate the well as idle. Instead of plugging a well, operators cap the well. Capping a well is much cheaper than plugging a well and wells can be capped and left “idle” for indefinite amounts of time.

Well plugging

Unplugged wells can leak explosive gases into neighborhoods and leach toxic fluids into drinking waters. Plugging a well helps protect groundwater and air quality, and prevents greenhouse gasses from escaping and expediting climate change. Therefore it’s important that idle wells are plugged.

While plugging a well does not entirely eliminate all risk of groundwater contamination or leaking greenhouse gases, (read more on FracTracker’s coverage of plugged wells) it does reduce these risks. The longer wells are left idle, the higher the risk of well casing failure. Over half of California’s idle wells have been idle for more than 10 years, and about 4,700 have been idle for over 25 years. A report by the U.S. EPA noted that California does not provide the necessary regulatory oversite of idle wells to protect California’s underground sources of drinking water.

Wells are left idle for two main reasons: either the cost of plugging is prohibitive, or there may be potential for future extraction when oil and gas prices will fetch a higher profit margin.  While idle wells are touted by industry as assets, they are in fact liabilities. Idle wells are often dumped to smaller or questionable operators.

Orphaned wells

Wells that have passed their production phase can also be “orphaned.” In some cases, it is possible that the owner and operator may be dead! Or, as often happens, the smaller operators go out of business with no money left over to plug their wells or resume pumping. When idle wells are orphaned from their operators, the state becomes responsible for the proper plugging and abandonment.

The cost to plug a well can be prohibitively high for small operators. If the operators (who profited from the well) don’t plug it, the costs are externalized to states, and therefore, the public. For example, the state of California plugged two wells in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles at a cost of over $1 million. The costs are much higher in urban areas than, say, the farmland and oilfields of the Central Valley.

Since 1977, California has permanently sealed about 1,400 orphan wells at a cost of $29.5 million, according to reports by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). That’s an average cost of about $21,000 per well, not accounting for inflation. From 2002-2018, DOGGR plugged about 600 wells at a cost of $18.6 million; an average cost of about $31,000.

Where are they?

Map of California’s Idle Wells


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The map above shows the locations of idle wells in California.  There are 29,515 wells listed as idle and 122,467 plugged or buried wells as of the most recent DOGGR data, downloaded 3/20/19. There are a total of 245,116 oil and gas wells in the state, including active, idle, new (permitted) or plugged.

Of the over 29,000 wells are listed as idle, only 3,088 (10.4%) reported production in 2018. Operators recovered 338,201 barrels of oil and 178,871 cubic feet of gas from them in 2018. Operators injected 1,550,436,085 gallons of water/steam into idle injection wells in 2018, and 137,908,884 cubic feet of gas.

The tables below (Tables 1-3) provide the rankings for idle well counts by operator, oil field, and county (respectively).  Chevron, Aera, Shell, and California Resources Corporation have the most idle wells. The majority of the Chevron idle wells are located in the Midway Sunset Field. Well over half of all idle wells are located in Kern County.

Table 1. Idle Well Counts by Operator
Operator Name Idle Well Count
1 Chevron U.S.A. Inc. 6,292
2 Aera Energy LLC 5,811
3 California Resources Production Corporation 3,708
4 California Resources Elk Hills, LLC 2,016
5 Berry Petroleum Company, LLC 1,129
6 E & B Natural Resources Management Corporation 991
7 Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC 842
8 HVI Cat Canyon, Inc. 534
9 Seneca Resources Company, LLC 349
10 Crimson Resource Management Corp. 333

 

Table 2. Idle Well Counts by Oil Field
Oil Field Count by Field
1 Midway-Sunset 5,333
2 Unspecified 2,385
3 Kern River 2,217
4 Belridge, South 2,075
5 Coalinga 1,729
6 Elk Hills 958
7 Buena Vista 887
8 Lost Hills 731
9 Cymric 721
10 Cat Canyon 661

 

Table 3. Idle Well Counts by County
County Count by County
1 Kern 17,276
2 Los Angeles 3,217
3 Fresno 2,296
4 Ventura 2,022
5 Santa Barbara 1,336
6 Orange 752
7 Monterey 399
8 Kings 212
9 San Luis Obispo 202
10 Sutter 191

 

Risks

According to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) the count of idle wells in California has increased from just over 20,000 idle wells in 2015 to nearly 30,000 wells in 2018! That’s an increase of nearly 50% in just 3 years!

Nobody knows how many orphaned wells are actually out there, beneath homes, in forests, or in the fields of farmers. The U.S. EPA estimates that there are more than 1 million of them across the country, most of them undocumented. In California, DOGGR officially reports that there are 885 orphaned wells in the state.

A U.S. EPA report on idle wells published in 2011 warned that existing monitoring requirements of idle wells in California was “not consistent with adequate protection” of underground sources of drinking water. Idle wells may have leaks and damage that go unnoticed for years, according to an assessment by the state Department of Conservation (DOC). The California Council on Science and Technology is actively researching this and many other issues associated with idle and orphaned wells. The published report will include policy recommendations considering the determined risks. The report will determine the following:

  • State liability for the plugging and abandoning of deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Assessment of costs associated with plugging and abandoning deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Exploration of mechanisms to ameliorate plugging, abandoning, and decommissioning burdens on the state, including examples from other regions and questions for policy makers to consider based on state policies

Current regulation

As of 2018, new CA legislation is in effect to incentivize operators to properly plug and abandon their stocks of idle wells. In California, idle wells are defined as wells that have not had a 6-month continuous period of production over a 2-year period (previously a 5-year period). The new regulations require operators to pay idle well fees.  The fees also contribute towards the plugging and proper abandonment of California’s existing stock of orphaned wells. The new fees are meant to act as bonds to cover the cost of plugging wells, but the fees are far too low:

  • $150 for each well that has been idle for 3 years or longer, but less than 8 years
  • $300 for each well that has been idle for 8 years or longer, but less than 15 years
  • $750 for each well that has been idle for 15 years or longer, but less than 20 years
  • $1,500 for each well that has been idle for 20 years or longer

Operators are also allowed to forego idle well fees if they institute long-term idle well management and elimination plans. These management plans require operators to plug a certain number of idle wells each year.

In February 2019, State Assembly member Chris Holden introduced an idle oil well emissions reporting bill. Assembly bill 1328 requires operators to monitor idle and abandoned wells for leaks. Operators are also required to report hydrocarbon emission leaks discovered during the well plugging process. The collected results will then be reported publicly by the CA Department of Conservation. According to Holden, “Assembly Bill 1328 will help solve a critical knowledge gap associated with aging oil and gas infrastructure in California.”

While the majority of idle wells are located in Kern County, many are also located in California’s South Coast region. Due to the long history and high density of wells in the Los Angeles, the city has additional regulations. City rules indicate that oil wells left idle for over one year must be shut down or reactivated within a month after the city fire chief tells them to do so.

Who is responsible?

All of California’s wells, from Kern County to three miles offshore, on private and public lands, are managed by DOGGR, a division of the state’s Department of Conservation. Responsibilities include establishing and enforcing the requirements and procedures for permitting wells, managing drilling and production, and at the end of a well’s lifecycle, plugging and “abandoning” it.

To help ensure operator liability for the entire lifetime of a well, bonds or well fees are required in most states. In 2018, California updated the bonding requirements for newly permitted oil and gas wells. These fees are in addition to the aforementioned idle well fees. Operators have the option of paying a blanket bond or a bond amount per well. In 2018, these fees raised $4.3 million.

Individual well fees:

  • Wells less than 10,000 feet deep: $10,000
  • Wells more than 10,000 feet deep: $25,000

Blanket fees:

  • Less than 50 wells: $200,000
  • 50 to 500 wells: $400,000
  • 500 to 10,000 wells: $2,000,000
  • Over 10,000 wells: $3,000,000

With an average cost of at least $31,000 to plug a well, California’s new bonding requirements are still insufficient. Neither the updated individual nor blanket fees provide even half the cost required to plug a typical well.

Conclusions

Strategies for the managed decline of the fossil fuel industry are necessary to make the proposal a reality. Requiring the industry operators to shut down, plug and properly abandon wells is a step in the right direction, but California’s new bonding and idle well fees are far too low to cover the cost of orphan wells or to encourage the plugging of idle wells. Additionally, it must be stated that even properly abandoned wells have a legacy of causing groundwater contamination and leaking greenhouse gases such as methane and other toxic VOCs into the atmosphere.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo: Kerry Klein, Valley Public Radio

DOGGR

Literally Millions of Failing, Abandoned Wells

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

In California’s Central Valley and along the South Coast, there are many communities littered with abandoned oil and gas wells, buried underground.

Many have had homes, buildings, or public parks built over top of them. Some of them were never plugged, and many of those that were plugged have since failed and are leaking oil, natural gas, and toxic formation waters (water from the geologic layer being tapped for oil and gas). Yet this issue has been largely ignored. Oil and gas wells continue to be permitted without consideration for failing and failed plugged wells. When leaking wells are found, often nothing is done to fix the issue.

As a result, greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere and present an explosion risk for homes built over top of them. Groundwater, including sources of drinking water, is known to be impacted by abandoned wells in California, yet resources are not being used to track groundwater contamination.

Abandoned wells: plugged and orphaned

The term “abandoned” typically refers to wells that have been taken out of production. At the end of their lifetime, wells may be properly abandoned by operators such as Chevron and Shell or they may be orphaned.

When operators properly abandon wells, they plug them with cement to prevent oil, natural gas, and salty, toxic formation brine from escaping the geological formation that was tapped for production. Properly plugging a well helps prevent groundwater contamination and further air quality degradation from the well. The well-site at the surface may also be regraded to an ecological environment similar to its original state.

Wells that are improperly abandoned are either plugged incorrectly or are “orphaned” by their operators. When wells are orphaned, the financial liability for plugging the well and the environmental cleanup falls on the state, and therefore, the taxpayers.

You don’t see them?

In California’s Central Valley and South Coast abandoned wells are everywhere. Below churches, schools, homes, they even under the sidewalks in downtown Los Angeles!

FracTracker Alliance and Earthworks recently spent time in Los Angeles with an infrared camera that shows methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. We visited several active neighborhood drilling sites and filmed plumes of toxic and carcinogenic VOCs floating over the walls of well-pads and into the surrounding neighborhoods. We also visited sites where abandoned, plugged wells had failed.

In the video below, we are standing on Wilshire Blvd in LA’s Miracle Mile District. An undocumented abandoned well under the sidewalk leaks toxic and carcinogenic VOCs through the cracks in the pavement as mothers push their children in walkers through the plume. This is just one case of many that the state is not able to address.

California regulatory data shows that there are 122,466 plugged wells in the state, as shown below in the map below. Determining how many of them are orphaned or improperly plugged is difficult, but we can come up with an estimate based on the wells’ ages.

While there are no available data on the dates that wells were plugged, there are data on “spud dates,” the date when operators begin drilling into the ground. Of the 18,000 wells listing spud dates, about 70% were drilled prior to 1980. Wells drilled before 1980 have a higher risk of well casing failures and are more likely to be sources of groundwater contamination.

Additionally, wells plugged prior to 1953 are not considered effective, even by industry standards. Prior to 1950, wells either were orphaned or plugged and abandoned with very little cement. Plugging was focused on protecting the oil reservoirs from rain infiltration rather than to “confine oil, gas and water in the strata in which they are found and prevent them from escaping into other strata.” Of the wells with drilling dates in the regulatory data, 30% are listed as having been drilled prior to the use of cement in well plugging.

With a total of over 245,000 wells in the state database, and considering the lack of monitoring prior to 1950, it’s reasonable to assume there are over 80,000 improperly plugged and unplugged wells in California.

Map of California’s Plugged Wells

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The regions with the highest counts of plugged wells are the Central Valley and the South Coast. The top 10 county ranks are listed below in Table 1. Kern County has more than half of the total plugged wells in the entire state.

Table 1. Ranks of Counties by Plugged Well Counts
  • Rank
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • County
  • Kern
  • Los Angeles
  • Orange
  • Fresno
  • Ventura
  • Santa Barbara
  • Monterey
  • San Luis Obispo
  • Solano
  • Yolo
  • Plugged Well Count
  • 65,733
  • 17,139
  • 7,259
  • 6,970
  • 4,302
  • 4,192
  • 2,266
  • 1,463
  • 1,456
  • 1,383

The issue is not unique to California. Nationally, an estimated 2.56 million oil and gas wells have been drilled and 1.93 million wells had been abandoned by 1975. Using interpolated data, the EPA estimates that as of 2016 there were 3.12 million abandoned wells in the U.S. and 69% of them were left unplugged.

In 2017, FracTracker Alliance organized an exercise to track down the locations of Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells that are not included in the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s digital records. Using paper maps and the FracTracker Mobile App, volunteers explored Pennsylvania woodlands in search of these hidden greenhouse gas emitters.

What are the risks?

Emissions

Studies by Kang et al. 2014, Kang et al 2016, Boothroyd et al 2016, and Townsend-Small et al. 2016 have all measured methane emissions from abandoned wells. Both properly plugged and improperly abandoned wells have been shown to leak methane and other VOCs to the atmosphere as well as into the surrounding groundwater, soil, and surface waters. Leaks were shown to begin just 10 years after operators plugged the wells.

Well density

The high density of aging and improperly plugged wells is a major risk factor for the current and future development of California’s oil and gas fields. When fields with old wells are reworked using new technology, such as hydraulic fracturing, CO2 flooding, or solvent flooding (including acidizing, water flooding, or steam flooding), the injection of additional fluid and gas increases pressure in a reservoir. Poorly plugged or aging wells often lack the integrity to avoid a blowout (the uncontrolled release of oil and/or gas from a well). There is a consistent risk that formation fluids will be forced to migrate up the plugged wellbores and bypass the existing plugs.

Groundwater

In a 2014 report, the U.S. Geological Service warned the California State Water Resources Control Board that the integrity of abandoned wells is a serious threat to groundwater sources, stating, “Even a small percentage of compromised well bores could correspond to a large number of transport pathways.”

The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) has also suggested the need for additional research on existing aquifer contamination. In 2014, they called for widespread testing of groundwater near oil and gas fields, which has still not occurred.

Leaks

In addition to the contamination of underground sources of drinking water, abandoned well failures can even create a pathway for methane and fluids to escape to Earth’s surface. In many cases, such as in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California, where drilling began prior to the turn of the 20th century, many wells have been left unplugged. Of the abandoned wells that were plugged, the plugging process was much less adequate than it is today.

If plugged wells are allowed to leak, surface expressions can form. These leaks can travel to the Earth’s crust where oil, gas, and formation waters saturate the topsoil. A construction supervisor for Chevron named David Taylor was killed by such an event in the Midway-Sunset oil field near Bakersfield, CA. According to the LA Times, Chevron had been trying to control the pressure at the well-site. The company had stopped injections near the well, but neighboring operators continued high-pressure injections into the pool. As a result, migration pathways along old wells allowed formation fluids to saturate the Earth just under the well-site. Tragically, Taylor fell into a 10-foot diameter crater of 190° fluid and hydrogen sulfide.

California regulations

Following David Taylor’s death in 2011, California regulators vowed to make urgent reforms to the management of underground injection, and new rules finally went into effect on April 1, 2018. These regulations require more consistent monitoring of pressure and set maximum pressure standards. While this will help with the management of enhanced oil recovery operations, such as steam and water flooding and wastewater disposal, the issue of abandoned wells is not being addressed.

New requirements incentivizing operators to plug and abandon idle wells will help to reduce the number of orphan wells left to the state, but nothing has been done or is proposed to manage the risk of existing orphaned wells.

Conclusion

Why would the state of California allow new oil and gas drilling when the industry refuses to address the existing messes? Why are these messes the responsibility of private landholders and the state when operators declare bankruptcy?

New bonding rules in some states have incentivized larger operators to plug their own wells, but old low-producing or idle wells are often sold off to smaller operators or shell (not Shell) companies prior to plugging. This practice has been the main source of orphaned wells. And regardless of whether wells are plugged or not, research shows that even plugged wells release fugitive emissions that increase with the age of the plug.

If the fossil fuel industry were to plug the existing 1.666 million currently active wells, there would be nearly 5 million plugged wells that require regular inspections, maintenance, and for the majority, re-plugging, to prevent the flow of greenhouse gases. This is already unattainable, and drilling more wells adds to this climate disaster.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Pennsylvania Drilling Trends in 2018

With the new year underway, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on the state of unconventional oil and gas extraction in Pennsylvania and examine a few of the drilling trends. A logical place to start is looking at the new wells drilled in 2018.

As always, but perhaps even more so than in previous years, unconventional drilling in Pennsylvania is a tale of two shale plays, with hotspots in the southwestern and northeastern corners of the state. The northeastern hotspot seems to be extending westward, including 25 new wells in Jones Township in Elk County (an area shown in dark red near the “St Marys” label on the map). In the southwestern hotspot, the industry continues to encircle Allegheny County, closing in on the City of Pittsburgh like a constrictor.

Screen shot showing spud report for Indiana Township, Allegheny County from 1/1/2017 through 1/4/2019. We suspect these spud dates of 11/29/17 and 11/30/17 are incorrect.

Screen shot showing spud report for Indiana Township, Allegheny County from 1/1/2017 through 1/4/2019. We suspect these spud dates of 11/29/17 and 11/30/17 are incorrect.

Data error? As Pittsburgh-area residents reflect on the past year, some of them must be wondering why a new well pad in Indiana Township, just northeast of the city isn’t shown on the map above. The answer is that the data the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has for these wells indicate they were drilled November 29-3o, 2017, although we believe this to be incorrect. FracTracker obtained the data from the Spud Report on January 2, 2019, which indicates seven wells spudded in that two day span on the “Miller Jr. 10602” well pad. This activity drew considerable opposition from families in the Fox Chapel School district in May of 2018, and was therefore widely reported on by the media. An article published on WESA indicates an expected drill date of July 2018, for example.

It turns out the new year is also a good time to remember that our understanding of the oil and gas industry around us is shaped, molded, and limited by the availability and quality of the data. We brought the Indiana Township data error to the attention of DEP, which only confirmed that the operator (Range Resources) entered the spud dates into the DEP’s online system. Perhaps these well were drilled in November of 2018 not 2017? There is even a possibility these wells have yet to be drilled.

Here are a few more dissections of the data, such as it is:

Graph of unconventional (fracking) wells drilled in PA, YTD - Drilling trends

Figure 1: Unconventional wells drilled in PA by year: 2005 to 2018

Wells Drilled Over Time

Barring more widespread data issues, the status of a handful of wells in Indiana Township does not have much of an impact on the overall trend of drilling in the state. There were 779 wells on the report, representing just under 40% of the total from the peak year of 2011, when industry drilled 1,958 wells. The year 2019 was the fourth year in a row where the industry failed to drill 1,000 wells, averaging 719 per year over that span. In contrast, the five years between 2010 and 2014 saw an average of 1,497 wells per year, more than twice the more recent average. As mentioned in our Hazy Future report, projections based on very aggressive drilling patterns are already proving to be out of phase with reality, although petrochemical commodity markets might change drastically in the coming decades.

How long before wells are plugged?

We also like to periodically check to see how long these wells stay in service. In Pennsylvania, there are two relevant well statuses worth following: plugged and regulatory inactive. While there are a number of conditions that characterize regulatory inactive wells, they are essentially drilled wells that are not currently in production, but may have “future utility.” Therefore, the wells are not required to be permanently plugged at this time.

Unconventional wells drilled since 2005 in PA - Drilling trends

Figure 2: This chart shows the percentage of unconventional wells drilled since 2005 with a plugged or regulatory inactive status as of December 31, 2018.

In order to understand some of the finer points, it’s best to use Figure 1 (above) in conjunction with Figure 2. We can see that most of the wells drilled in the initial years of the Marcellus boom have already been plugged, although Figure 1 shows us that the sample size is fairly low for these years. In 2005, for example, 7 of the 9 (78%) unconventional wells drilled in the state that year are already plugged. The following year, 24 of the 37 (65%) wells drilled are now plugged, and an additional 4 (11%) wells have a regulatory inactive status as of the end of 2018. The following year, the combined plugged and inactive wells account for just over 50% of the 113 wells drilled that year, and this trend continues along a fairly predictable curve. An exception is the noticeable bump around the most active drilling years of 2010 and 2011, where there are slightly more wells with a plugged or inactive status than might be expected. It is interesting to note that even the most recent wells are not immune to being plugged, including 8 plugged wells and 4 inactive wells drilled in 2018 that were not able to get past their very first year in production.

Overall, of the 11,675 drilled wells accounted for on this graphic, 851 (7%) are plugged already, with an additional 572 (5%) of wells with an inactive status.  Unconventional wells that are 11 years old have a roughly 50% chance of being plugged or inactive, and we would therefore expect to see the number of these wells skyrocket in the coming years before leveling off, roughly mirroring the drilling boom and subsequent slowdown of Marcellus Shale extraction in Pennsylvania.

Conclusions

Many factors contribute to fluctuations in drilling trends for the Marcellus Shale and other unconventional wells in Pennsylvania. Very cold winters result in high consumption by residential and commercial users. New gas-fired power plants can increase the demand for additional drilling. Recessions and economic conditions are known to reduce the demand for energy as well, and drillers’ heavy debt burdens can slow down operations appreciably. Additionally, other fossil fuel and renewable energy sources compete with one another, altering the market conditions even further. And finally, every oil and gas play eventually reaches a point where the expected results from new wells are not worth the money required to get the hydrocarbons to the surface, and unconventional wells are much more expensive to develop than more traditional operations.

Because of all of these variables, month to month or even year to year fluctuations are not necessarily that telling.  On the other hand, a four-year period where drilling is roughly half of previous extraction is significant, and can’t be easily dismissed as a blip in the data.


By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance