Conference takes aim at state’s orphan well problem

Penn State researcher Nooreen Meghani leads a field trip to an orphaned well location in May 2016. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — More than 150 years after the first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, decades of energy exploration have resulted in hundreds of thousands of abandoned, lost and forgotten oil and gas wells scattered across the state.

Researchers at Penn State are among a number of organizations in Pennsylvania working to locate and assess these so called orphaned and abandoned wells, which if not properly plugged, or if damaged over time, can potentially cause air and water pollution.

Members of these organizations met together for the first time in September on Penn State's University Park campus for the Orphaned Wells Conference — a chance to discuss their work and talk about what they can accomplish by collaborating.

“I think having everyone at the same table really opened collaborative doors,” said Nooreen Meghani, a research assistant in Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. “It inspired a lot of conversation about how we can help each other.”

The conference, hosted by Penn State’s Marcellus Matters program, drew representatives from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, the state Department of Environmental Protection, Save our Streams Pa., and the Clearfield County Senior Environmental Corps.

In addition to learning more about each other’s research, the participants discussed working toward an official collaborative effort that would help them move forward with their projects and potentially seek funding, Meghani said.

“One of the outcomes is that we are working to create some kind of partnership, an actual organization that all of these different groups are part of that can then focus on the larger issue,” Meghani said. “It’s a way to direct our efforts.”

Officials estimate there are as many as 350,000 orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. Most of these were drilled before modern regulations, and their locations are often lost to time. Forgotten wells hide in forests, parks and even in plain sight in places like residential neighborhoods.

Improperly plugged or damaged wells pose potential environmental concerns both from greenhouse gases like methane that can escape into the atmosphere, and from oil or gas that could escape and affect freshwater aquifers. The state has a program to plug and repair damaged wells, but many remain undiscovered.

Meghani has worked for the past year to educate and train citizen scientist groups and volunteers across the state to locate and report wells. Volunteers are trained both to research possible well locations, and how to use that research and spot one in the field. Both research and field observations can be reported to a database created by Penn State as part of the project, The information is also forwarded to the state DEP.

The work was supported by a National Science Foundation STEM grant and was part of the larger NSF-funded project, Marcellus Matters: Engaging Adults in Science and Energy.

While the funding is expiring, Meghani expects to continue working with volunteers and the database in the coming year, and continues to seek additional funding for the project. 

Last Updated October 05, 2016