Researchers are taking to the archives — and the air — to track down abandoned oil and gas wells that have left little evidence on the surface or aren’t marked in modern records.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is gathering maps made over the last century from the file drawers of other state agencies, municipal records offices and drilling company libraries. It is also sharing information with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, whose researchers flew a helicopter outfitted to detect metal casings in old wells over three state-owned properties this summer.
The department’s goal is to digitize both old and new maps, and merge them in a public online tool that drilling companies can use to scope out hazards before extracting gas from new wells.
DEP’s list of verified orphaned and abandoned wells includes fewer than 8,700 sites, but the agency estimates that 200,000 unaccounted for wells were drilled and abandoned during decades of oil and gas activity before wells were registered in the state. Pennsylvania began requiring operators to get permits to drill new wells in 1956 and to register old wells in 1985.