When most people hear about Methane as an environmental contaminant of concern, they think of air pollution and its connection to climate change. Methane is also commonly found in private groundwater wells in Pennsylvania's coal, oil, and natural gas producing counties. This intersection of shallow groundwater and Methane in the subsurface could be dangerous if not managed properly.
Methane (CH4) is a naturally occurring odorless, colorless, and highly flammable hydrocarbon gas. It is present in shallow and deep coal beds and other rock units and is the primary component found in natural gas.
Like all gasses, Methane migrates from high pressure to low pressure areas. Mining and well drilling operations can affect the pressure in the subsurface and cause the migration of Methane to regions of lower pressure, such as shallow aquifers and water wells used as water supplies. An increase or decrease in atmospheric pressure can also influence gas migration in the subsurface. Methane can also be released from abandoned or orphaned gas wells that have corroded and lost their mechanical integrity.
Methane can migrate into water wells in a gaseous phase or dissolved in the groundwater. At atmospheric pressure, Methane is soluble in water at 26 milligrams per liter (26 parts per million [ppm]). It is explosive as a gas between 5 and 15 ppm in the air at room temperature. As it exsolves from groundwater, Methane may accumulate undetected in water wellbores and water well enclosures that are not adequately vented. Methane may also move into basements of homes and other structures through plumbing and piping containing electrical connections. These conditions could lead to an explosion, like in McKean County in 2011.
An orphaned oil or gas well is inactive, not plugged or improperly plugged, and has no legal operator. An abandoned well is also inactive and may, although unlikely, still have a viable operator. As the June 2023 map from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) below documents, approximately 21,000 orphaned and abandoned wells have been identified and registered with the PADEP. There are likely thousands more since the oil and gas industry was active for nearly 100 years before registration and well plugging became regulated. Undocumented wells are discovered weekly and added to the Commonwealth’s orphaned and abandoned well inventory.
Orphaned oil and gas wells can be anywhere. In my work with The Well Done Foundation, I have seen wells in woods and streams, in pastures, next to homes, and in parking lots. Some still have casing, valves, and production equipment on the surface. Some are open pipes or open holes in the ground.
PADEP has an active Well Plugging Program to plug oil and gas wells where there is no identifiable responsible party. The Federal government has allocated billions of dollars in grants to states, including Pennsylvania, to plug more orphaned and abandoned wells through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Over the next ten years, Pennsylvania may receive approximately $400 million to plug orphaned and abandoned wells. The funding available at the state and federal levels is insufficient to solve the orphaned well problem completely. An average well in Pennsylvania costs $100,000 to plug and restore the surface location. With 21,000 documented wells, it would cost more than $20 billion.
Knowing that there was a better way and wanting to develop a collaborative approach to address the orphaned well problem, Curtis Shuck established the Well Done Foundation (WDF) as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Since 2019 the WDF, through the support of many generous donors and corporate sponsors, has plugged 29 orphan oil and gas wells in several states, including two in Pennsylvania. Our process is to identify and qualify orphaned wells for adoption by generating a detailed report focused on gas emissions, surface conditions, environmental impacts, and site accessibility. If the well meets the criteria, WDF adopts the well and plugs it. We work with the landowners to complete the surface restoration phase. Through this work, WDF has permanently reduced harmful Methane gas emissions, improved groundwater quality, and restored the environment.
The public can do a few things to navigate the dangerous intersection of groundwater and Methane. Methane is lighter than air, so it will not accumulate in a water well if adequately vented to the atmosphere. Venting is an inexpensive and effective way to reduce the potential for Methane gas to seep into homes or structures from water wells. If you know of or suspect an orphaned or abandoned well on your property, notify PADEP or your local oil and gas regulatory agency. Every well is different and qualified individuals should inspect them. The regulatory agency will then decide what the next steps are.
There are significantly more orphaned and abandoned wells than there are resources to plug them in the foreseeable future. It may seem impossible, but together, we can make a difference #onewellatatime.
Amanda Veazey has 25 years of experience as a geologist in the oil and gas and environmental consulting industries. She is currently the Vice President of The Well Done Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Bozeman, Montana, that plugs orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells across the United States. Her professional interests include locating and plugging orphaned wells, surficial/shallow geology, hydrogeology, Methane migration in groundwater, and science communication. When she’s not hiking in the woods or measuring Methane at orphaned wells, Amanda enjoys watching LSU football and basketball, knitting, and gardening. Amanda lives with her family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The KnowYourH2O Team would like to thank the Well Done Foundation and Mrs. Amanda Veazey for preparing this article about the organization and its mission. We are happy to work with this foundation to support them in completing their mission which is in line with the KnowYourH2O mission.
The Path to Clean Water has many steps and pathways, and addressing legacy issues such as orphaned wells, poorly sited and constructed private wells, Superfund Sites, and acid mine drainage are just a few of the environmental problems we face in Pennsylvania.
This article focused on orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells. Because many of our users and readers are environmentalists, professionals, and private well owners, we wanted to provide some additional information related to Methane Gas in the environment and the historical relationship between private wells and Methane Gas.