STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's an occasion where the present crashes into the past. Natural gas drilling has shaken up the domestic energy landscape and Pennsylvania is at the heart of that. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has brought a lot of money and jobs to the state and a lot of wells. Thousands have been drilled in the past few years. But this is not Pennsylvania's first energy boom. The world's first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania followed by hundreds of thousands more, all of them now out of use.
As Scott Detrow of member station WITF in Harrisburg reports, when new wells meet old wells, bad things can happen.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: That's a geyser erupting alongside a rural road in northeast Pennsylvania this summer. Without warning it started blasting water and natural gas 30 feet into the air. Natural gas is mostly methane and it can be flammable. In this YouTube video, a landowner asks a firefighter what's happening.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So there's nothing in there, nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't think we can shut it with fire.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's too much right there.
DETROW: The geyser spewed for about a week and it just so happened that right nearby, Shell was operating some natural gas wells tapped into Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale. Was there a link? Yes, but it's a bit more complicated than you'd think. Here's Shell spokeswoman Kelly OpDeWeegh.
KELLY OPDEWEEGH: Our evaluation of the methane release indicates that the abandoned Butters Well likely did play a role.
DETROW: The abandoned Butters Well had been there for 80 years before Shell started drilling in the area. It was drilled in 1932 on a farm owned by Mr. W. J. Butters. All these wells, the new Shell operations and the old Butter site run through underground pockets of natural gas. Here's what happened. As Shell drilled into a gas pocket, it put pressure on the underground pocket forcing the gas to look for a way to ease the stress.
The gas found that old abandoned well and it used its pathway to shoot to the surface.
FRED BALDASSARE: Gas always wants to go from high pressure to low pressure so that old abandoned well represents a low pressure zone, a natural migration pathway, because it's always trying to seek that, much just like water wants to go downhill, gas wants to move to a low pressure zone.
DETROW: That's Fred Baldassare. He investigated this sort of thing for 15 years at Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. Sitting in his office near Pittsburgh, Baldassare plays me another video of another geyser, this one from 2008.
BALDASSARE: That one was a fairly dramatic one because the geyser threw 90-feet of film material vertically. That was a very dramatic one.
DETROW: This geyser had the same dynamics. The underground gas feeling the squeeze from a new well looked for a way to come out. It comes across this old well, a perfect elevator to the surface if it hasn't been properly sealed with cement. If it makes it above ground this flammable gas can gather in water wells, basements or in extreme cases, spout like a fountain. So the big challenge for regulators and drilling companies is to find these old wells before it's too late.
It's not easy, because most of these wells are nearly impossible to find. People were drilling for oil and gas for nearly a century before Pennsylvania set down rules for documenting wells. As time went on, cities and towns were built on top of them and forests grew back. Regulators estimate there are probably 200,000 abandoned wells. At best, they know where four percent of them are.
Laurie Barr knows this. She's spent more than two years driving around northern Pennsylvania, looking for wells. We get out of her car in the middle of the forest. She climbs up a steep hill and into the woods to show me a rusty, slimy, jagged pipe, an old well head.
LAURA BARR: The thing that happens, depending on the pressure, underground or the water table, this pours with water.
DETROW: Barr says she never thought too much about abandoned wells until a nearby home blew up last year.
BARR: And I just thought, whoa, you know, like, what the F, you know? Can you imagine, like, stepping out into your driveway to shovel your snow and your whole house goes poof?
DETROW: State regulators blame a leaky abandoned well drilled in the 1880s. In this case, a new well was not involved. All on its own, gas found its way into the well and then into the home. Soon Barr was on a mission. She read every report she could find about abandoned wells and began studying old property records and hiking through the woods to find them. She organized an online well scavenger hunt where other people can add well sightings to her growing database.
BARR: This is like a 13-year-old's bedroom with all the pizza boxes laying all over the floor, you know, and they're not being responsible. They haven't cleaned up their mess.
DETROW: Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection does not have enough money to plug all the abandoned wells it's found. Gene Pine runs Pennsylvania's well-plugging division. He says the state can only do triage.
GENE PINE: A well that's been out there and there's no evidence at all that it's leaking oil or venting gas and it's not near a home or it's not near a surface water body, like a stream or a lake, then that would be given a lower priority.
DETROW: The program is funded by a 150 to $250 surcharge on well permits and has plugged around 20 wells so far this year. Since it began the project in 1989, the unit has plugged about 2800 wells. That means there's still about 200,000 to go and all that in the midst of a new drilling boom. For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow.
INSKEEP: And that report comes to us from State Impact, a collaboration of NPR and local member stations which explores how state level issues affect American lives.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.