12/8/12 9:10 AMDeteriorating Oil and Gas Wells Threaten Drinking Water, Homes Across the Country - ProPublicaPage 2 of 6http://www.propublica.org/article/deteriorating-oil-and-gas-wells-threaten-drinking-water-homes-across-the-co
Vents like the one pictured in the foreground have beeninstalled throughout Versailles, Pa., so gas fromabandoned wells can be directed away from homes.(Nicholas Kusnetz /ProPublica)
Such incidents rarely receive much attention outside the states and neighborhoods they affect. But as the nation's latest drilling boomcontinues, abandoned wells have begun attracting more attention, particularly in states where the earth is already pock-marked with holesleft by earlier waves of extraction. New wells sometimes disturb layers of rock and dirt near fragile old wells, leading to new cases of contamination.The most recent effort to count the nation's unplugged wells was a survey  published in 2008 by the Interstate Oil and Gas CompactCommission, a multistate agency made up of regulators and industry representatives. It found that states had located nearly 60,000 wellsthat needed to be plugged -- and estimated that as many as a million more may be out there. In Pennsylvania alone, regulators estimatethat 184,000 wells were drilled before records were kept. Many of those wells were plugged with stumps, rocks or nothing at all."The fact that there are thousands of these out there that need to be addressed, it's a problem, and it's a problem common to all states" with a history of drilling, said Bradley Field, who heads New York's Division of Mineral Resources.The task of finding, plugging and monitoring old wells is daunting to cash-strapped stategovernments. A shallow well in good condition can sometimes be plugged with cement for afew thousand dollars. But costs typically run into the tens of thousands, and a price tag of $100,000 or more isn't unusual.In the last decade, New York has managed to plug only about 125 of its estimated 40,000deteriorating wells. It has taken Kentucky more than two decades to plug about 4,000 wells --and it has a waiting list of almost 13,000 more. Even Texas, which has invested heavily inabandoned wells, is years away from plugging all of its open holes. Since 1984, it has pluggedmore than 30,000 wells. But almost 10,000 are still open, and more are found and added tothe list all the time.Some regulators fear that the number of abandoned wells will grow when the current drilling boom  runs its course. Last year, oil and gas operators drilled almost 45,000 new wellsacross the United States, and that number is expected to hold steady or increase as the nationtries to wean itself from foreign oil. If even a small fraction of those wells is eventually abandoned, states will be left with the bill, just asthey were when the last boom ended in the mid-1980s.To prevent that from happening, states require energy companies to post bonds before they begin building their wells. But the bonds areoften so low that it can be more economical for a company to forfeit its bond rather than plug its wells. In Pennsylvania, for instance, anenergy company can cover hundreds of wells with a single $25,000 bond.John Hanger , who until January headed Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, called the bonds "scandalously low.""There are some choices you shouldn't put in front of even good companies," Hanger said. "I'd like to think the companies would do theright thing, but we know that just isn't always the case."
The Birthplace of an Industry
One of Pennsylvania's worst cases of gas migration  occurred in the Borough of Versailles, a small, working-class community justoutside Pittsburgh. From 1919 through 1921, more than 175 gas wells were drilled in the town. Residents put wells in their backyards toheat their homes, packing them into the 25-by-100-foot lots.The boom dried up when most of the wells proved unproductive. But in the 1960s, pockets of gas began leaking into homes. Some houses were condemned and demolished, and Versailles eventually became a case study for federal scientists trying to locate old wells.Researchers studied old maps and walked the grounds with magnetometers, which detect the magnetic field from metal casings in the wells. If casings were never installed or had been removed, they could test the soil for hydrocarbons that might be leaking to the surface.Some of the old wells were plugged. But more often vents were installed to direct gas away from the homes. Today, dozens of pipes pop outof the ground in yards, behind garages and through houses, slowly leaking methane and hydrogen sulfide so the explosive gases don'taccumulate. In 2009 Versailles received a $368,600 federal grant to maintain its aging vents. About 50 methane alarms have also beeninstalled in the town.