Plugging Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Could Help Save the Environment—and Jobs
It is estimated there may be a few hundred thousand abandoned wells in Pennsylvania—some located in the woods, along riverbanks, in people's yards, and even inside their homes.
Drilling for oil and gas has a long history in the US, dating all the way back to 1859 when the first successful commercial oil well—the Drake Well—was drilled in northwestern Pennsylvania. This long history has made the state ground zero for abandoned wells, which often leak dangerous pollution into the environment and potent greenhouse gases such as methane into the air.
It is estimated there may be a few hundred thousand abandoned wells in Pennsylvania—some located in the woods, along riverbanks, in people's yards, and even inside their homes. These wells are left behind—orphaned to the state—after their owners, often oil and gas companies, go bankrupt or when the wells fall into disrepair.
Once in state hands, it is the government's responsibility to plug the wells when they break. The EPA estimates there may be more than 2 million abandoned wells across the nation.
In early June, we followed Don Cornell of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to an emergency call in the town of Bradford to plug a leaking well in someone's backyard.
"This old oil and gas well came in because the landowner had a complaint. He noticed he had a puddle of oil in his backyard," explained Cornell.
Cornell says most of the wells that they deal with are from the early 1900s; there is no current owner and the companies are long gone or went bankrupt. "They didn't take care of the wells back when they were first drilled and walked away," he said.
"I've been in this position now for almost 11 years and I'm still amazed with what we come across, where the wells are in streams, in the river—islands on the Allegheny River, there's wells there," Cornell said.
Even inside people's houses?
"Yep. In basements and foundations, they're just everywhere. And their driveways, when they don't know about it until one day oil start seeping up through their driveway."