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Production and Location Trends in PA: A Moving Target

The FracTracker Alliance tends to look mostly at the impacts of drilling, from violations affecting surface and ground water to forest fragmentation to neighbors breathing diesel exhaust near disposal wells.  We also try to give residents tools to help predict where future activity will occur, but as this article details, such predictive tools can do little more than trail moving targets. To that end, we have taken a look into areas where gas production is high for unconventional wells in the state, which are likely sites of future development.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Production Report is self-reported by the various operators active in the state. Unconventional wells generate a large quantity of natural gas, measured in thousands of cubic feet (Mcf), as well as limited amounts of oil and condensate, both of which are measured in 42 gallon barrels. In this analysis, we are only considering the gas production.


Click here for full screen map. 

In the map above, you can click on any well to learn more about the production values, along with a variety of other information including the well’s formation and age.  The age was calculated by counting days from the spud date to the end of the report cycle, March 31, 2019.

 

Top Average Gas Production by County – April 2018 to March 2019

CountyProducing Wells Avg. Production (Mcf) Production Rank Avg. Age of Producing WellsAge Rank
Wyoming 2511,269,15615 Yr / 10 Mo / 4 Days12
Sullivan1281,087,86825 Yr / 2 Mo/ 24 Days8
Allegheny1171,075,01834 yr/ 2 Mo / 7 Days2
Susquehanna1,4291,066,73445 Yr / 6 Mo / 22 Days10
Greene1,131796,75555 yr / 10 Mo / 28 Days13
Figure 1 – This table shows the top five counties in Pennsylvania for per-well unconventional gas production. The final column shows the county ranking for the average age of wells, from youngest to oldest

We can also see this data summarized by county, where average production and age values are available on a county by county basis (see Figure 1). Hydrocarbon wells are known to decrease production steeply over time, a phenomenon known as the decline curve, so it is not surprising to see a relatively young inventory of wells represented in the list of top five counties with per-well gas production. Age is not the only factor in production values, however, as certain geographies simply contain more accessible gas resources than others.

 

Figure 2 – 12 month gas production and age of well. Production is usually much higher during the earliest phases of the well’s production life.  This does not include wells that have been plugged or taken out of production.  Click on image for full-sized view.

In Figure 2, we look at the production of all unconventional wells in the state, expecting to see the highest production in younger wells. This mostly appears to be the case, but as mentioned above, there are also hot and cold spots with respect to production. A notable variable in this consideration is producing formation.

Since 93% (8,730 out of 9,404) of unconventional wells reporting gas production are in the Marcellus Shale Formation, the traditional hot spots in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state heavily skew the overall totals in terms of both production and number of wells.  Other formations of note include the Onodaga Limestone (137 wells, 1.5% of total), Burket Member (117 wells, 1.2%), Genesee Formation (104 wells, 1.1%), and the Utica Shale (99 wells, 1.1%) (Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Unconventional gas production over 12 months, showing formation. Click on image for full-sized view.

Drillers have been exploring some of these formations for decades. In fact, the oldest producing well that is currently classified as unconventional was 13,435 days old as of March 31, which works out to 36 years, 9 months, and 12 days.

However, this is fairly rare – only 384 (4%) of the 9,404 producing wells were more than 10 years old. 5,981 wells (64%) are between 5 and 10 years old, with the remaining 3,039 wells (32%) younger than 5 years old.

This does not take into account wells of any age that have been plugged or otherwise taken out of production.

Age of Pennsylvania’s active wells

< 5 years old
5-10 years old
> 10 years old

 

Utica Shale

The Utica Shale is worth a special mention here for a couple of reasons.  First, we must acknowledge its prominence in neighboring Ohio, which has 2,160 permitted Utica wells to go with just 40 permitted Marcellus wells, the prevalence of the two plays seems to invert just as one passes over the state line. And yet, the most productive Utica wells are near the border with New York, not Ohio.

In fact, each of the top 11 producing Utica wells during the 12 month period were located in Tioga County.  It’s worth noting that these are all between one and two years old, which would have given the wells time to be drilled, fracked, and brought into production, while still being in the prime of their production life. Compared to the Marcellus, sample size quickly becomes an issue when analyzing the Utica in Pennsylvania (Figure 4).

Figure 4 – Producing Utica wells in Pennsylvania. Note that the cluster of heavily producing wells in Tioga and Potter Counties near the New York border are mostly young wells where higher production would be expected.  Click on image for full sized view.

Second, portions of the Utica are known for their wet gas content, meaning that the gas has significant quantities of natural gas liquids (NGLs) including ethane, propane, and butane, which are gaseous at ambient temperatures but typically condensed into liquid form by oil and gas companies.  These are used for specialized fuels and petrochemical feedstocks, and are therefore more valuable than the methane in natural gas.

The production report does not capture the amount of NGLs in the gas, but a map from the Energy Information Administration shows the entire play, noting that the composition is dryer on the eastern portions of the play. In fact, a wet gas composition along the Ohio border might help to explain continued interest in what are otherwise well below average gas production results for Pennsylvania.

A Moving Target

It is difficult to predict where the industry will focus its attention in the coming months and years, but taking a look at production and formation data can give us a few clues.  Obviously, operators who found a particularly productive pocket of hydrocarbons are likely to keep drilling more holes in the ground in those areas until production is no longer profitable. Therefore, impacts to water, air, and nearby residents can be expected to continue in heavily drilled areas largely because the production level makes it attractive for drillers.

On the other hand, we should not assume that areas that are currently not productive are off the table for future consideration, either. Different formations are productive in different geographies, so a sweet spot for the Marcellus might be a dud in the Utica, or vice versa.

Finally, when comparing production, we must always take the age of the well into consideration, as all oil and gas wells can be expected to start off with a short period of very high production, followed by years of ever-diminishing returns throughout the expected 10 to 11 year lifecycle of the well. Because of this, what seems like a hotspot now may look below average in a similar analysis in three to four years, particularly in formations with relatively light drilling activity. This means that the top list of production by well could change over time, so be sure to check back in with FracTracker to see how events unfold.

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

 

Release: The 2019 You Are Here map launches, showing New York’s hurdles to climate leadership

For Immediate Release

Contact: Lee Ziesche, lee@saneenergyproject.org, 954-415-6282

Interactive Map Shows Expansion of Fracked Gas Infrastructure in New York State

And showcases powerful community resistance to it

New York, NY – A little over a year after 55 New Yorkers were arrested outside of Governor Cuomo’s door calling on him to be a true climate leader and halt the expansion of fracked gas infrastructure in New York State, grassroots advocates Sane Energy Project re-launched the You Are Here (YAH) map, an interactive map that shows an expanding system of fracked infrastructure approved by the Governor.

“When Governor Cuomo announced New York’s climate goals in early 2019, it’s clear there is no room for more extractive energy, like fossil fuels.” said Kim Fraczek, Director of Sane Energy Project, “Yet, I look at the You Are Here Map, and I see a web of fracked gas pipelines and power plants trapping communities, poisoning our water, and contributing to climate change.”

Sane Energy originally launched the YAH map in 2014 on the eve of the historic People’s Climate March, and since then, has been working with communities that resist fracked gas infrastructure to update the map and tell their stories.

“If you read the paper, you might think Governor Cuomo is a climate leader, but one look at the YAH Map and you know that isn’t true. Communities across the state are living with the risks of Governor Cuomo’s unprecedented buildout of fracked gas infrastructure,” said Courtney Williams, a mother of two young children living within 400 feet of the AIM fracked gas pipeline. “The Governor has done nothing to address the risks posed by the “Algonquin” Pipeline running under Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. That is the center of a bullseye that puts 20 million people in danger.”

Fracked gas infrastructure poses many of the same health risks as fracking and the YAH map exposes a major hypocrisy when it comes to Governor Cuomo’s environmental credentials. The Governor has promised a Green New Deal for New York, but climate science has found the expansion of fracking and fracked gas infrastructure is increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“The YAH map has been an invaluable organizing tool. The mothers I work with see the map and instantly understand how they are connected across geography and they feel less alone. This solidarity among mothers is how we build our power ,” said Lisa Marshall who began organizing with Mothers Out Front to oppose the expansion of the Dominion fracked gas pipeline in the Southern Tier and a compressor station built near her home in Horseheads, New York. “One look at the map and it’s obvious that Governor Cuomo hasn’t done enough to preserve a livable climate for our children.”

“Community resistance beat fracking and the Constitution Pipeline in our area,” said Kate O’Donnell  of Concerned Citizens of Oneonta and Compressor Free Franklin. “Yet smaller, lesser known infrastructure like bomb trucks and a proposed gas decompressor station and 25 % increase in gas supply still threaten our communities.”

The YAH map was built in partnership with FracTracker, a non-profit that shares maps, images, data, and analysis related to the oil and gas industry hoping that a better informed public will be able to make better informed decisions regarding the world’s energy future.

“It has been a privilege to collaborate with Sane Energy Project to bring our different expertise to visualizing the extent of the destruction from the fossil fuel industry. We look forward to moving these detrimental projects to the WINS layer, as communities organize together to take control of their energy future. Only then, can we see a true expansion of renewable energy and sustainable communities,” said Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator at Fractracker Alliance.

Throughout May and June Sane Energy Project and 350.org will be traveling across the state on the ‘Sit, Stand Sing’ tour to communities featured on the map to hold trainings on nonviolent direct action and building organizing skills that connect together the communities of resistance.

“Resistance to fracking infrastructure always starts with small, volunteer led community groups,” said Lee Ziesche, Sane Energy Community Engagement Coordinator. “When these fracked gas projects come to town they’re up against one of the most powerful industries in the world. The You Are Here Map and ‘Sit, Stand Sing’ tour will connect these fights and help build the power we need to stop the harm and make a just transition to community owned renewable energy.”

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

34 states with active drilling activity in US map

34 states have active oil & gas activity in U.S. based on 2016 analysis

Each year, FracTracker Alliance compiles a national well file to try to assess how many wells have been drilled in the U.S. We do this by extracting data from the various state regulatory agencies that oversee drilling in oil and gas producing states. We’re a little late posting the results of our 2016 analysis, but here it is.

Based on data from 2014-2015, 34 states * saw drilling activity, amounting to approximately 1.2 million facilities across the U.S. – from active production wells, to natural gas compressor stations, to processing plants.

The process we used to count these wells and related facilities for the 2016 analysis changed a bit this time around, which obviously impacts the total number of wells in the dataset. 2016’s compilation was created in consultation with Earthworks, for the purpose of informing the Oil and Gas Threat Map project. The scope was more restrictive than previous editions (see our 2014 and 2015 analyses), focusing only on wells that we were reasonably confident were actively producing oil and gas wells, thus excluding wells with inactive or uncertain statuses, as well salt water disposal (SWD) and other Class II injection (INJ) well types.

There are facilities included in this dataset that we don’t normally tally, as well (See Table 1 below). Earthworks was able to determine the latitude and longitude coordinates of a number of compressors and other processing plants, which are included in the dataset below and final map.

In all, the facility counts are reduced from about 1.7 million in 2015 to about 1.2 million in 2016, but this is more a reflection of the definition than substantial changes in the active well inventory in the U.S. You can explore this information by state, and additional results of this project, using Earthworks’ Threats Maps. Additionally, the national well file is available to download below.

You’ll notice that we don’t refer to the wells in this analysis as “fracked” wells. The primary reason for not using such terminology is because no one common definition exists across those states for what constitutes a hydraulically fractured well. In PA, for example, such wells are considered “unconventional” because drilling occurs in an unconventional formation and usually involves some sort of well stimulation. Contrastingly, in CA, often drillers use “acidizing” not fracking – a similar process that breaks up the ground using acidic injected fluids instead of the high pressure seen in traditional fracking. As such, we included all active oil and gas production instead of trying to limit the analysis to just wells that have been stimulated. We will likely continue to use this process until a federal or national definition of what constitutes a “fracked” well is determined.

Table 1. Facilities by State and Type

State Count of Facilities by Type Grand Total
Compressor Processor Well
AK 7 3,356 3,363
AL 17 7,016 7,033
AR 231 8 13,789 14,028
AZ 40 40
CA 7 21 92,737 92,765
CO 426 49 50,881 51,356
FL 2 102 104
ID 6 6
IL 5 48,748 48,753
IN 7,374 7,374
KS 9 90,526 90,535
KY 5 11,769 11,774
LA 6,486 94 2,555 9,135
MI 19 16,525 16,544
MO 2 687 689
MS 6 4,556 4,562
MT 5 9,768 9,773
ND 19 13,024 13,043
NE 1 16,202 16,203
NM 902 37 57,839 58,778
NV 176 176
NY 12,244 12,244
OH 29 10 90,288 90,327
OK 856 96 29,042 29,994
OR 56 56
PA 452 11 103,680 104,143
SD 408 408
TN 15,956 15,956
TX 758 315 397,776 398,849
UT 18 20,608 20,626
VA 9,888 9,888
WI 1 1
WV 20 16,118 16,138
WY 325 48 38,538 38,911
Grand Total 10,472 825 1,182,278 1,193,575
* NC facilities are not included because the state did not respond to multiple requests for the data. This exclusion likely does not significantly affect the total number of wells in the table, as historically NC only had 2 oil and gas wells.

Hypothetical Impacts of Unconventional Drilling In Allegheny County

With tens of thousands of wells scattered across the countryside, Southwestern Pennsylvania is no stranger to oil and gas development. New, industrial scale extraction methods are already well entrenched, with over 3,600 of these unconventional wells drilled so far in that part of the state, mostly from the well known Marcellus Shale formation.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is also home to the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area, a seven county region with over 2.3 million people. Just over half of this population is in Allegheny County, where unconventional drilling has become more common in recent years, along with all of its associated impacts. In the following interactive story map, the FracTracker Alliance takes a look at current impacts in more urban and suburban environments, plus projects what future impacts could look like, based on leasing activity.

hypothetical impacts map

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

Nearly 2 Million Pennsylvanians Live Within a Kilometer of Oil & Gas Wells

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

In October 2014, the FracTracker Alliance performed an analysis showing an estimated 1.2 million people lived within a half mile of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. We have now updated the analysis, but this time, the unit of measure is one kilometer (0.62 miles).

PA Population Within 1km of Active Oil and Gas Wells


This map shows the estimated population within one kilometer of active oil and gas wells in PA – a total of nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians. To access the full set of tools and details about how the map was made, click here for the full screen version of the map.

Methods

To get as complete a picture as possible of the oil and gas industry in PA, we queried the spud date report to show all wells that were listed as being spudded between January 1, 1800 and November 12, 2015. We used the former date because it appears to be a default for unknown spud dates, and the latter being the date that the data were downloaded for the analysis. Altogether, this yielded 203,887 oil and gas wells throughout the state, but 74,900 (37%) of these lacked location coordinates. All of those missing latitude and longitude data were classified as conventional wells, and many of them were fairly old. We then filtered out wells that were reported as not being drilled, as well as those that were permanently plugged, either by the operator, or by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). The resulting set, which we refer to as “active” oil and gas wells, included 106,970 wells, of which 9,042 (8%) are defined as unconventional wells by the state.

To obtain an estimated population, we used the Census Tract level of detail, using official 2010 population figures. We calculated the area within 1 kilometer of active wells in three categories – conventional, unconventional, and all oil and gas wells. The population was then estimated by comparing the area inside the 1 km zone to the entire Census Tract, multiplying that ratio to the population of that tract, and repeating the process for each of the three datasets.

This area calculation was performed in Albers Equal Area projection optimized for the Great Lakes Basin area.  Every method of flattening an area of a globe on the map will lead to some type of distortion, but this projection prioritizes area over other factors, and is therefore appropriate for this type of analysis.

Results

An additional year of drilling activity, a more comprehensive date range, and the slight increase of the radius distance has had a significant effect on the estimated population near wells. The 2014 analysis yielded an estimated 1,264,576 within a half-mile of wells, while the current analysis has the figure at 1,965,837, an increase of 55%. Below is a table showing differences between the two analyses:

PA_PopWells_2015

This chart shows summaries of the current analysis of population within 1 km of wells in PA and an October 2014 version, showing population within a half-mile of wells.

One thing you will notice in this figure is that simply adding up the number of people who live in areas near unconventional and conventional drilling will not get you to the 1,965,837 figure we’ve presented. This is because some people live within the specified distance of both types of wells.

Additionally, it is impossible to say how many people live near the oil and gas wells that lack location data, as we obviously can’t map these wells. The majority of these wells may be in the areas that are already represented in the buffer zones, or they may extend that distance significantly.

Unconventional Drilling Activity Down In Pennsylvania

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

Wells Spudded (Drilled)

The number of newly drilled unconventional wells in Pennsylvania peaked in 2011.

Figure 1: Newly drilled unconventional wells in Pennsylvania peaked in 2011.

Unconventional oil and gas drilling is well established in Pennsylvania, with over 9,200 drilled wells, an additional 7,200 permitted locations that have not yet been drilled, and 5,300 violations all happening since the turn of the millennium. It took a while for the industry to gather steam, with just one unconventional well drilled in 2002, and only eight in 2005. But by 2010, that figure had ballooned to 1,599 wells, which was greater than the previous eight years combined. There were 1,956 wells drilled in 2011, representing the peak for unconventional drilling activity in Pennsylvania (Figure 1).

None of the three full years since then, however, have seen more than 70% of the 2011 total. Halfway through 2015, the industry is on pace to drill only 842 unconventional wells statewide, which would be the lowest total since 2009, and only 43% of the 2011 total.


Pennsylvania Shale Viewer. Click here to access the full screen view with a legend, layer details, and other tools.

Taken cumulatively, the footprint on the state is immense, as is shown in the map above, and impacts remain for some time. Of Pennsylvania’s 9,234 unconventional wells 8,187 (89%) are still active. Only 474 wells have been permanently plugged so far, with 570 given an inactive status, and one well listed as “proposed but never materialized,” despite being included on the spud report.

Permits & Violations

The number of permits and violations issued have been declining over the past five years as well.

Five years of unconventional oil and gas activity in Pennsylvania, July 2010 through June 2015.

Figure 2: Five years of unconventional oil and gas activity in Pennsylvania, July 2010 through June 2015.

Figure 2 shows the monthly totals of permits, wells, and violations over the last 60 months. Linear trendlines were added to the chart to give a visual representation of changes over time if we ignore the noise of the peaks and troughs of activity, which is an inherent attribute of the industry. Each of the three trendlines has a negative slope1, showing downward trends in each category.

In fact, permits for new wells are declining more rapidly than the drilled wells, and violations issued are declining at a still faster rate. Over the course of five years, these declines are substantial. In July 2010, the smoothed totals that are “predicted” by the trendline show 304 permits issued, 159 wells drilled, and 128 violations issued per month.  60 months later, one would expect 213 permits, 81 wells drilled, and just 12 violations issued2.

Location of Drilling Activity

The oil and gas industry has been more selective about where unconventional wells are being drilled in recent years, as well. Altogether, there are unconventional wells in 39 different counties, with 32 counties seeing action in both 2010 and 2011. That number is down to 22 for both 2014 and the first half of 2015. There has been drilling in 443 different municipalities since 2002, with a maximum of 241 municipal regions in 2011, which shrank to 161 last year, and just 88 in the first half of 2015.


Summary of unconventional wells drilled in each Pennsylvania county by year, through June 30, 2015. Click here to access the full screen view with a legend, layer details, and other tools

Clicking on any of the counties above will show the number of unconventional wells drilled in that county by year since the first unconventional well was spudded in Pennsylvania back in 2002.  The color scheme shows the year that the maximum number of unconventional wells were drilled in each county, with blues, greens, and yellows showing counties where the activity has already peaked, oranges showing a peak in 2014, and red showing a peak in 2015, despite only six months of activity.  30 of the 39 counties with unconventional wells in the state saw a peak in activity in 2013 or before.

Notes

  1. The equations for the three trendlines are as follows:
    • Permits: y = -1.5128x + 303.81
    • Wells: y = -1.2939x + 158.95
    • Violations: y = -1.9334x + 127.53
  2. The lowest actual value for each category are as follows:
    • Permits: 117, in July 2012
    • Wells: 43, in February 2015
    • Violations: 16, in August 2014.

Utica Drilling in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, the vast majority of unconventional oil and gas activity is focused on the Marcellus Shale formation, a Devonian period deposit of black shale with a high hydrocarbon content, which requires horizontal drilling and large scale hydraulic fracturing to produce enough oil and gas to make the drilling economically viable.  This formation was created about 390 million years ago, when organic-rich deposits accumulated in what is now the Appalachian Mountains, but was at that time a shallow sea.  Down below the base of the Marcellus lies the Utica Shale, an Ordovician period formation, with almost the same geographic extent as the Marcellus, but the deposits were placed there about 65 million years earlier.


Utica permits and violations in Pennsylvania. Click here to access the legend and other map tools.

In neighboring Ohio, it is the Utica that gets most of the attention, with 937 permitted wells, as opposed to just 20 for the Marcellus.  In Pennsylvania, the reverse is true:  there are 16,110 permitted Marcellus wells, but only 279 permits for Utica wells.  Part of the reason for this is because the subsurface characteristics of these formations vary widely, especially in terms of thickness and depth.  With changes in depth come changes in temperature and pressure, which are key criteria in hydrocarbon formation.  In other words, the same formation that produces considerable quantities of gas and valuable liquid hydrocarbons in eastern Ohio may be economically unviable just a county or two over in western Pennsylvania.

Utica shale permits, drilled wells, violations, and violations per well for Pennsylvania, through June 19, 2015.

Utica shale permits, drilled wells, violations, and violations per well for Pennsylvania, through June 19, 2015.

Utica drilling permits have been issued in 19 different counties in Pennsylvania, with wells having been drilled in 15 of those.  The violations per well (VpW) score for Utica wells in the Keystone State is 0.9, meaning that there are nine violations issued for every 10 wells that have been drilled.  It is worth noting, however, that only 36 of the 114 drilled wells have received violations, meaning that some wells have been cited on multiple occasions.

Of particular note is Bradford county, the site of only one Utica well, but 19 items on the compliance report.  The problematic Bayles 1 well was run by three different operators before being permanently plugged.  This well also has two “Drill Deeper” permits, and as a result, it is likely that the first six violations assessed to this well were issued before it was associated with the Utica Shale, as they precede the most recent spud date for the well in June, 2005.  Most of the violations for this well seem to be for pit violations and discharges to the ground and nearby stream.

Wells drilled into the Utica Formation in Pennsylvania, by year and current status.

Wells drilled into the Utica Formation in Pennsylvania, by year and current status.

In terms of drilling activity, it appears to have peaked in 2012, calling into question whether the industry considers the formation to be economically viable in Pennsylvania.  Of the 28 wells drilled since the beginning of 2014, Tioga County has seen the most activity with 11 wells drilled, followed by five wells in Butler County, then three in Lawrence County.  If we think of drilling activity as a sort of positive feedback from the industry – meaning that they like what they see and want to keep exploring – then only Tioga County seems to be holding the attention of the various operators who have been active in the Utica Shale.  Given the Utica activity in Ohio, one might have thought that counties on the western edge of the state – especially Beaver, Lawrence, and Mercer – would have shown the most promise, but this appears not to be the case.

Pennsylvania Data Discrepancies

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) publishes oil and gas well data in two different places: on their own website’s Spud Data Report, and in the Oil and Gas Locations file published on the PA Spatial Data Access repository, also known as PASDA. Because these two sources are both ultimately published by PADEP, it would stand to reason that the data sources would match up. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Learn more about the data discrepancies we uncovered:


This map shows those wells in Pennsylvania that only show up on one of the two data sources. Pink dots show wells that appear on PASDA but not the PADEP site, while the reverse is true for blue wells. Click here for the full screen view with additional map tools.

Methodology

Both of these data sources have existed for years. When FracTracker does analyses of PA, we usually use data directly from the PADEP site, because it includes far more information about the wells, such as the spud date, county, municipality, well configuration, and whether or not the well is classified as unconventional. Even though it has less information about each well, the data on PASDA is useful for expediently mapping the inventory of wells in the Keystone State. In this current analysis, we looked at both sources, and found significant discrepancies between the two.

Individual oil and gas wells have been given unique API numbers since the 1950’s. The overwhelming majority of items on both lists that we examined have these numbers, and those that do not have other numeric identifiers in their place. The uniqueness of the data in these columns is what we used to determine the number of wells on both lists. These columns in both data sources were then tested against one another using Microsoft Excel in order to determine which wells were included on both lists.

The data on PASDA is described as “Oil and Gas Locations,” and nothing in available metadata made it clear as to whether wells that were permitted but not yet drilled might be included in this or not. Additionally, we are mostly interested in wells that are still operational, assuming that there might be accuracy issues for historical wells in an industry that has been operational in the state since before the Civil War. We did, however, include orphaned and abandoned wells, as they remain a source of impact throughout the state.

Summary

PADEP_PASDA_descrep

Number of wells in PA in various categories. For brevity, “Total wells – Drilled and not plugged” is shown as “TW-DnP.”

We found 3,315 records of drilled, unplugged wells with location information on the PASDA dataset that are not on the PADEP search tool, and 96 such wells on the PADEP site that aren’t found on PASDA. Additionally, there are 35,434 drilled and unplugged wells in the PADEP data that lack location data, although six of these wells are actually on the PASDA site, meaning that there is some location data for them somewhere at PADEP.

For those of you who might be looking for discrepancies in our discrepancy table, one might expect the number of both wells that appear on both lists (the second to last row on the chart) to be identical. The biggest reason that they are not is that some wells appear in the PASDA dataset multiple times. There are 6,997 fewer unique wells than there are entries on the full file, or a 95.74% match rate. In comparison, the PADEP spud report only has 19 duplicates for over 204,000 wells, a 99.99% match between the number of wells and the number of records. Indeed, when we filter for unique wells, the difference between the two lists shrinks to only 40 records, which might be explained by differences is well statuses that were used to shape our analysis.

This chart shows the number of wells drilled per year in Susquehanna County, through 2/11/15.

Number of wells drilled per year in Susquehanna Co., through 2/11/15.

Undoubtedly, it will take some effort to get the two datasets to reflect the full set of wells in PA, but that is certainly a task than can be accomplished. The wells lacking location data are likely to be much more of a challenge. If we include all status types, there are 75,508 wells on the spud report that lack latitude and longitude values altogether, leaving us with only the county and municipality to determine where these wells are located. Hopefully, this crucial data exists somewhere in the PADEP inventory, and these wells are not in fact lost.

Finally, there are a couple of things to note about dates. Since the PASDA dataset does not include spud dates, it is impossible to determine the age of the majority of the mismatched wells. Looking at the pink dots on the interactive map above, though, it is clear that a large number of these mismatched PASDA wells are in the northeastern corner of the state that has been booming since the recent development of the Marcellus, but saw little to no development before that time – at least according to the spud report.

Of the 96 wells that are on the spud report but not PASDA, 67 are given the date “1/1/1800,” which seems to be a default date; over 94,000 wells on the report have this listed as the spud date. Most of the other wells that don’t match are relatively old wells, with spud dates ranging between 1960 and 1984. One of these wells was drilled on May 6, 1999 though, and four more were drilled on August 19, 2014.

The mismatched data can be accessed here for those who are interested.