When the Shale Runs Dry: A Look at the Future of Fracking

If you want to see the future of the shale industry — what today's drilling rush will leave behind — come to Bradford, Pennsylvania.

A small city, it was home to one of America's first energy booms, producing over three quarters of the world's oil in 1877. A wooden oil rig towering over a local museum commemorates those heady days, marking the first “billion dollar oil field” in the world.

But times have changed dramatically in Bradford. Most of the oil has been pumped out, leaving residents atop an aging oil field that requires complicated upkeep and mounting costs. Since its height in the 1940's, Bradford's population has steadily declined, leaving the city now home to only 8,600 people, down from over 17,000. 

The story of Bradford these days is a story of thousands of oil and gas wells: abandoned, uncapped, and often leaking.

To drive through McKean County, home to Bradford and much of the Allegheny National Forest, is to witness an array of creative ways people have found to hide the remnants of this bygone boom. Rusted metal pipes — the old steel casings from long abandoned wells — jut from lawns and roadsides. Mailboxes are strapped to some of the taller pipes. In autumn, abandoned wells are tucked behind Halloween props and hay bales in front yards.

The aging steel pipes aren't just on land. They line creek beds, water flowing around one rusted pipe then another.

Hundreds are even submerged in the Allegheny Reservoir, small bubbles of methane gas the only visible sign of their existence. But in many cases, these rusted top hats from now deceased wells simply protrude from locals' lawns.

They are visual reminders that, for local communities where mining or drilling happens, fossil fuel wealth burns hot and short. Where there's a boom, there's bound to be a bust.

With a new fracking rush spreading across the nation, aimed at extracting oil and gas from shale, it's important to look at the history of prior oil booms — the legacy the drilling industry has already left behind.

Everywhere they drill will likely look like this one day,” said Laurie Barr, an organizer with Save Our Streams PA, a volunteer group which tracks abandoned wells.


A downed tree is caught against an abandoned oil well in Bradford, PA. © 2014 Laura Evangelisto.

The costs left by this bygone boom are more than just aesthetic. When an oil or gas well stops producing, it needs to be properly plugged or else it can leak — spewing out oil, brine, water or methane gas.

Many drillers simply walked away from their wells once the oil and gas stopped flowing,” Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel told the city's newspaper in August. “Their legacy is tens of thousands of abandoned and orphaned wells, many of which don’t show up on any maps or charts.”

Abandoned and Forgotten

Simply finding many of the abandoned wells poses expensive challenges. During the early years of Pennsylvania's oil boom, there were no laws governing the industry. Drillers could simply leave oil wells when production dried up.

If maps were improperly marked or lost, a well could effectively disappear. Old steel casings were often pulled from abandoned wells for scrap metal, especially during World War II, so even metal detectors often fail to show their presence.

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection has recently renewed efforts to identify abandoned wells, but the state's list of known orphaned and abandoned wells has under 13,000 entries — and a study by Princeton University researchers concluded that up to 970,000 wells were drilled in the state, the vast majority undocumented in state records.

The number of abandoned wells nationwide is also unknown. The EPA's most complete tally, conducted in 1987, estimated over 1.2 million wells were abandoned, at least 200,000 of which were never plugged.

This August, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory sponsored a helicopter survey across several Pennsylvania counties, using magnetic detection technology to hunt for steel well casings and methane gas leaks. But that approach fails for wells where the metal casings were pulled out and sold for scrap, leaving researchers to pore over old aerial photographs and maps. 

Oil companies are often reluctant to share their old maps, citing legal liabilities.


A capped oil and gas well, covered with leaves, in Bradford, PA. © 2014 Laura Evangelisto.

The abandoned wells are especially worrisome in areas where Marcellus shale drilling is now under way, because aquifers can be contaminated when new drilling and fracking forces toxic materials up old corroded abandoned wells and into underground drinking water supplies.

Under proposed state rules expected to go into effect in mid-2016, drillers must identify abandoned wells nearby before they start drilling and monitor them for any signs of leaks. In September, state regulators told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette they do not expect to have fully mapped Pennsylvania's abandoned wells before the regulations go into effect.

With state regulators struggling, one group is trying to crowd-source these efforts. Save Our Streams, PA has launched a scavenger hunt, during which volunteers look for evidence of abandoned wells and document them using GPS devices and digital cameras.


Laurie Barr of Save Our Streams, PA looks for abandoned wells near the Allegheny National Forest. © 2014 Laura Evangelisto.

Repeating the Past

While the Post Carbon Institute's new report, Drilling Deeper: A Reality Check on U.S. Government Forecasts for a Lasting Tight Oil & Shale Gas Boom, concluded that the Marcellus shale is one of the nation's richest shale gas plays, it found that over 75 percent of the gas is concentrated in just six counties, meaning that wells across most of the state are likely to be far less productive and profitable. This means that drillers across most of the Marcellus may be under even more pressure to cut costs — which can have troubling long-term consequences.

While today's shale rush is far more tightly regulated than the oil rush of the nineteenth century, independent experts warn that little has changed with regards to abandoning wells.

While state laws now require drillers to pay a bond meant to ensure that they will not simply walk away from the well, these bonds are woefully inadequate, researchers warn. 

“Pennsylvania currently requires production companies to post a bond to ensure environmental reclamation of abandoned well sites, but the size of the bond covers only a small fraction of the site reclamation costs,” wrote Austin Mitchell and Elizabeth Casman in a peer-reviewed article published in Environmental Science and Technology, adding “the economics favor default on well-plugging and site restoration obligations.”

In other words, drillers have an economic incentive to simply walk away from shale gas wells once production dries up. If they do so, they forfeit their bond, which is generally less than $10,000. But the researchers warned that plugging each Marcellus well will likely cost $100,000 or more.


Laurie Barr discusses the costs of abandoning a well. © 2014 Laura Evangelisto.

Properly plugging a well is an intricate and costly process. Typically, plugging a well involves installing a cement layer between every gas-, water-, or saline- bearing rock layer underground, often with gel separating each cement plug. The deeper the well, the more rock layers it may pass through, and thus the more plugs the well requires.

In addition, Laurie Barr adds, the cement plugs have a life expectancy of roughly 20 years. This means that every two decades, it is necessary to drill through the old plugs and install new ones. Some wells are even costlier and more complicated to seal because they are now underwater, requiring the deployment of barges and scuba divers.

The temptation to cut corners can be powerful. This month, the crew chief of an oilfield services company was convicted of falsely certifying that his crew had plugged up to 95 wells in the Allegheny National Forest by pumping concrete down to 2,000 feet, when in fact, they had sometimes only poured concrete at the surface.

The fraud, committed between 2009 and 2011, was discovered in 2012 when EPA officials went to inspect a Class II wastewater disposal well less than a quarter of a mile away and discovered that injected fluids had reached the improperly plugged abandoned wells.

The costs have swamped the state's efforts to plug known abandoned wells. As of October 2012, less than 3,000 wells had been plugged by the DEP. Instead, leaking wells languish on waiting lists, sometimes for decades after regulators were notified of possible air and water contamination.

“There's not enough gold in Fort Knox to plug the mess that they left behind and are still leaving behind,” Barr said.


Laurie Barr discusses the waiting list for abandoned wells.© 2014 Laura Evangelisto.

Marcellus wells, with their long horizontal tails, may prove more expensive than conventional oil wells to plug and re-plug. However, because 10 or more Marcellus wells may be drilled from the same well pad, some of the costs per well could be reduced. 

“With this stuff, no one knows” what the costs will be, said Rep. Jesse White, who represents the 46th district in Washington and Allegheny counties in one of the Marcellus shale sweet spots. “We don't know what those legacy costs are going to look like.”

“We're not doing anything to get ready,” said Rep. White. “We already have a problem here with conventional oil and gas wells that need to be plugged all over the place and it's a really high cost.”



State Rep. Jesse White discusses the problems posed by abandoned wells.© 2014 Laura Evangelisto.

The Costs of Inaction

Leaving the wells to leak has brought its own costs. In 1986, the EPA labeled four Pennsylvania counties a “major oil spill,” citing hundreds of leaking wells, with clean-up costs reaching over $5 million within two years.

In a few cases, methane from abandoned wells has migrated to the surface and pooled inside houses with disastrous effects.

“I am deeply alarmed to learn of yet another gas-migration-related explosion in Pennsylvania,” Senator Robert Casey wrote in a letter to the Department of Energy after two homes exploded in McKean county, with abandoned wells the suspected culprit. “The explosion of the two houses in close proximity to this troubled area certainly appears to be more than coincidence, yet the phenomenon is poorly understood and there is currently no way of preventing or even predicting when such incidents may occur.”

But the costs of these old wells are not just a burden on those living directly atop aging oil fields. There are climate change implications that will affect us all.

Last year, research by a doctoral candidate at Princeton University concluded that abandoned gas wells are responsible for between 4 and 13 percent of all of the human-caused methane leaks in Pennsylvania.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential 86 times as powerful as CO2 during the first two decades after it enters the atmosphere.

The EPA does not include leaks from abandoned oil and gas wells in its federal estimates for greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that little federal attention has been paid to the gasses that spew from the aging wells. A growing number of environmental groups and investors have called on the Obama administration to start addressing the role of methane leaks in climate change.

By the industry’s data, after 30 years 60 percent [of wells] leak,” said Barr. She carries a methane detector and a GPS device on trips conducted by Save Our Streams, PA through the woods in search of abandoned wells, many over 100 years old. “Some are high emitters, some are low emitters, but they all leak.”

Laurie Barr locates an abandoned oil and gas well seeping water near Bradford, PA. © 2014 Laura Evangelisto.

Back in Bradford, the downtown of this half-emptied out city is dominated by an oil refinery a few blocks off the main street. There's a pump jack in front of the drive-through at the local McDonald's, eking out less than three-quarters of a barrel worth of crude per day, according to a cracked and faded sticker.

A walkway through a stretch of wooded land on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford is lined with abandoned wells and discarded pipeline, with an abandoned compressor station from the turn of the century rusting deeper in the woods.


The McDonald's in Bradford, PA. © 2014 Laura Evangelisto.

Compared to other areas, Bradford has not been doing well economically, both in terms of property values or in terms of income.

“Data from the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) Business Analyst (which uses past U.S. Census data to track and predict future demographic information) predicts that median household income as well as median home values in the City of Bradford will continue to be well below the average of McKean County, Pennsylvania, and the U.S. over the next decade,” a 2011 study prepared for the City of Bradford said, adding that Bradford also had a higher percentage of people living below the poverty line than the county, state or nation.

Bradford — like much of Pennsylvania — is a living testament to how stubbornly the costs of drilling persist. Meanwhile, new drilling continues, adding more wells to the state's tally, all of which will need to be plugged, and then re-plugged when the concrete breaks down.

Since plugging can cost between $10,000 and $700,000, and somewhere between 280,000 and 970,000 wells have already been drilled across the state, the costs could be between $2.8 billion and $679 billion and rising with each new well drilled.

And because concrete breaks down, those multi-billion dollar price-tags must be paid anew every two decades or so.

With so many of the original drillers having walked away or gone bankrupt, it seems Pennsylvania will be paying the costs for far longer than fossil fuel wealth lasts.


Cobwebs can be seen on a metal gear in an abandoned oil compressor station in Bradford, PA. © 2014 Laura Evangelisto.

Abandoned Wells in Bradford, Pennsylvania