Like any good hunter, Nooreen Meghani knows how to read the signs that her prey is close.
But deep in the Allegheny National Forest, she’s not following animal tracks — or any sign of life for that matter. Instead she traces the path of an old metal pipe running along the forest floor.
It leads to a clearing that was made long ago, but that still lets light trickle into the dark woods. Concealed in the underbrush, she finds a broken slab of concrete. The hunt is over.
Meghani has found what’s left of a well — one of hundreds of thousands of oil or natural gas wells drilled across Pennsylvania, some more than 100 years ago, and then lost to time.
They are called orphaned and abandoned wells, and Penn State researchers estimate there are as many as 200,000 scattered across the state — hidden everywhere from the wilderness to neighborhoods.
Researchers with Penn State are leading an effort supported by a National Science Foundation STEM grant to track these wells down using a new model and help from reinforcements.
Meghani, a research assistant in Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, is working with volunteers, or “citizen scientists,” who are being trained to research where wells might be, find them and monitor for potential environmental impacts.
It’s a big job — many wells were drilled before anyone kept track of their numbers or location. Finding one takes training, but also a certain amount of luck, as Meghani learned firsthand leading a group of volunteers on a recent autumn day.
“We found some wells we didn’t expect would be there,” she said of her recent discovery in the Allegheny National Forest. “It was like a treasure hunt.”
This particular well had a damaged casing, meaning if any oil or gas remained, it could potentially escape. Others discovered in Pennsylvania have been found to be improperly sealed, or not sealed at all.
These improperly-plugged wells pose a potential environmental threat, both from greenhouse gases like methane that can escape into the atmosphere and from oil or gas that could affect freshwater aquifers.
“On one hand, you are excited to look for these things,” Meghani said. “Then you stop and think about what it is you’re finding. One of the wells we found was shattered and there was just a piece of concrete sticking out of the ground. It’s a little disturbing.”
Researchers estimate there have been 325,000 wells drilled in the state since 1859, when an oil boom began in the western part of the state. Almost 100 years elapsed before regulations in 1956 required wells to be documented, and the state has only about 125,000 on record.
The rest are scattered, no record of who owned or operated them. Those who seek them pore over historical records, examine old USGS topographic maps, talk to landowners and use technology such as satellite images and GPS coordinates.
“If you just walk out into the woods someplace, there is no guarantee you’ll find a well,” Meghani said. “In order to increase your probability, you’ve got to do your research.”
Researchers are offering new tools to volunteers to help in the search — a forum to bring community members together and a website that can be used to document found wells and track data like well integrity at the surface. The information can be used to inform state Department of Environmental Protection monitoring and future plugging operations.
Terry Noll, a research assistant with EESI, hopes to teach volunteers to use the model and see them become leaders of their own self-sustaining groups that will continue the hunt.
“We want to provide training, and we want it to have a cascading effect,” Noll said. “People we trained can train other people. They can do things important to them within their communities using this model.”
The program is part of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation called Marcellus Matters: Engaging Adults in Science and Energy.
Through it, Noll has hosted a series of workshops in various counties in rural Pennsylvania to teach people about energy related topics, like the Marcellus Shale gas boom.
The hope is that some who took those classes will use their education to help others in their communities hunt for abandoned wells, as well as engage in meaningful dialogue about polarizing issues related to shale gas.
“We’ve given the community these basic scientific skills,” Noll said. “This program we envision as a way they can go out and use them.”