The modern petroleum industry started here in Pennsylvania in 1859 when Edwin Drake drilled the world's first commercial oil well near Titusville. For a while the entire petroleum industry was located in that area, before oil was discovered in many other places around the world. For many years, crude oil marked “Pennsylvania Grade” was a sign of highest quality. Thousands of visitors still visit that site and the accompanying museum every year.
But that kind of oil drilling is now consigned to historic museums. When the boom went bust, many wells were abandoned. The drillers of the day didn't know about leakage of gases like methane which continued as the wells deteriorated and were abandoned. After a while, most people forgot about the old oil wells. However, Pennsylvania’s abandoned conventional oil fields are a mess and have been leaking methane for decades..
Now, however, there is a new risk – hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is better known. When oil was being actively pumped, there was natural gas (mostly methane) coming to the surface, but as the pumping stopped, this leakage waned. The methane in lower rock strata was bound in place by many layers of unbroken rock. Now, fracking for natural gas is breaking up those layers of rock. Abandoned well holes that have not caused problems for years are now leaking natural gas, harming the air, water and soil. There are many causes of methane leaks, and it is difficult to trace all of them.
Lost, orphaned and abandoned wells may and often do act as a conduits, or pathways, allowing natural gas or other fluids used during drilling to travel between formations to aquifers or the surface. These wells have caused property damage and have claimed the lives of Pennsylvanians after homes exploded.
Continuing to drill and frack among the historic oil wells without locating and monitoring them increases the likelihood more of these wells will be allowed to spew methane, brine and fluids used to stimulate new conventional wells.
Methane, the main component of natural gas is a very potent greenhouse gas which is known to contribute to climate change. It is at least 80 times more serious than Carbon Dioxide over a 20 year period as a cause of global climate change. Recent studies have shown that abandoned wells account for up to 10% of methane from human activities in Pennsylvania.
The current improvements to the Chapter 78 regulations will require companies that drill for fracking for natural gas to identify abandoned, orphaned, active and inactive wells within 500 feet for vertical oil wells. Operators would also be required to monitor the nearby wells while they are drilling and fracking and if they become affected, they would be required to plug them. This is a very limited measure. Once the vertical drilling is done, the fracking can go more than a mile horizontally, causing damage a long way from the well pad. The old oil wells are not deep enough to be intersected by these horizontal shafts, but the effects of the fractures can travel far beyond the actual drilling.
But even this very limited measure is too much for the gas drilling industry. Supported by the drilling industry, the Pennsylvania Senate recently passed Senate Bill 279. This bill calls for a halt in the implementation of the regulatory improvements. If SB 279 becomes law, operators would not be required to identify and monitor nearby wells during drilling and fracking. The bill would abolish these proposed requirements and it would be business as usual.
“Business as usual” for the fossil fuel industry includes water that catches fire, toxic spills of unknown chemicals, huge amounts of water use, destruction of private property and increased methane to cause higher global warming.
I hope that Governor Wolf will veto Senate Bill 279.