When natural gas drillers use extreme pressures to drill and crack rocks thousands of feet underground - when they frack for natural gas, for example - sometimes nearby conventional gas wells will suddenly see production double, or triple.
When drilling processes of a new well affects an already existing one, it's called well communication. Sometimes it's a good thing. Sometimes it isn't.
Swiss Cheese, West Virginia
In West Virginia, over 1,500 horizontal wells exist on some 400 well pads. That’s in addition to roughly 50-thousand conventional wells spread throughout many back yards and hillsides. Then there are another 12,000 wells that are abandoned (many of which were drilled prior to 1929 when the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection started to keep track of such things).
One thing is fairly certain about all of these wells: they are all conduits underground, through the water table. Nowhere is the Swiss cheese that is West Virginia more apparent than in Doddridge County where gas wells new and old are a common as cows.
Lyndia Ervolina is not an industry expert, but she knows what it’s like to live surrounded by horizontal drilling operations. Not only is the industry moving around Ervolina on wheels, Big Gas has moved in to Ervolina’s yard, literally. It comes from across the street.
“I have a condensate tank up there that they blow off right across the road that they put in when they put the pipeline in. So when it gets blown off into the air it comes to my house,” Ervolina said.
The troubling fact is that the smell of treated gas isn’t the only indicator of air pollution Ervolina worries about. There’s also a noise.
Right next to the condensate tank, an abandoned well that was drilled in the '60s is making this noise. That sound is gas venting into the air from some underground rock formation. Neither Ervolina nor the DEP knows who is responsible for it. It’s been making this sound for years.
“I came out one day and there were pieces of the thing laying all over the place and it was just pouring gas out, pouring gas out,” she said.
She can’t say for sure what happened to the well. There was some pipeline construction in the immediate vicinity. In the last few years, her area of Doddridge county has seen a lot of fracking, which is when drillers use liquid, sand, and extreme pressure to crack rock thousands of feet underground.
“The casing is gone. It’s completely busted up. So let’s get out of here.”
Ervolina says she already gets so much exposure to gas and pollutants from the condensate tank that she won’t linger around it for long.
Untreated natural gas doesn’t have an odor, but there is actual video footage taken with special filters that clearly reveals this particular well venting gas. Ervolina says when nearby horizontal wells are being fracked, the well hiss is louder.
The phenomenon Ervolina is describing, when one well affects pressure or production of another well, is an example of wells communicating. Research at West Virginia University is just getting underway now at a horizontal gas well in Morgantown to determine if any gas is migrating from the Marcellus shale rock formation there into overlying formations or underground sources of drinking water.
One Morgantown scientist, Marc Glass, says the possibility of migrating liquids and gasses is something scientists have been concerned about for years. Glass is in charge of the Environmental Monitoring and Remediation Program at Downstream Strategies, the Morgantown-based environmental consulting firm. Like Ervolina and other residents, Glass says he’s concerned about potential contamination associated with well communication. He explains that plenty of demonstrations of well communication exist. But he says predicting how wells will communicate is beyond us.
Technology exists today where, just by listening carefully during the fracking process, we can pinpoint where the rocks underground are cracking. It’s called microseismic monitoring. But Glass says it has limitations.
“Microseismic tells you where the fracture has occurred. It does not tell you where the fluid that was required to generate the pressure actually is, was or will be,” Glass said. “It only tells you that there was enough fluid present to create enough pressure to induce a fracture.”
Antero Resources is a gas company doing a lot of horizontal drilling in the state. Antero’s regional vice president and chief administrative officer, Al Schoppe, explained that well communication isn’t always a bad thing. It’s an indicator that an area has been thoroughly “developed,” he said. But it is something Antero operators are also concerned with. Schoppe says mostly, Antero has safety concerns should older equipment in the area give way under greater pressures. He says it’s common for horizontal drillers to map all the wells in the vicinity of their operation. And if they can, his operators try to communicate with any local operators who might be affected by the drilling process.
Unfortunately, there’s no policy or law where they have to also talk to residents in the vicinity.
The DEP confirms there have been at least two incidents where, as a direct result of horizontal drilling activities, conventional gas wells have seen increased pressures. There was an incident in 2012 in Ritchie County. And more recently, after horizontal drilling activity in Ohio, conventional wells were affected on the others de of the Ohio River in West Virginia. DEP says that so long as it doesn’t break equipment, increases in pressure are often a good thing for these conventional gas wells because they see increases in production. But for people living near abandoned wells, it seems more like bad luck.
The hissing, broken well at Ervolina’s house is a conduit for underground pollutants into our atmosphere, and the DEP says it should be plugged. That’s essentially when you pour cement into the well. As simple pouring some cement into a hole sounds, DEP officials say the process costs anywhere from $25,000 to more than $50,000 per well. Even by conservative estimates, plugging all the abandoned wells in West Virginia (there are about 12-thousand that we know of) would cost the state $300-million. And experts agree that the abandoned wells are hardly the problem when you consider the 50,000 aging conventional gas wells in the state owned and operated by families and small companies who simply do not have the means to plug their wells. The price tag to plug those wells is $1.25 billion.
From the West Virginia DEP, this map shows the locations of the approximately 11,000 abandoned wells that have been permitted in West Virginia. To meet the "abandoned" criteria, it means that no production data for these wells has been submitted for 12 or more consecutive months.
Blowing a Cement Cork out of the Ground
So while the DEP tries to figure out who is responsible for the abandoned well in Doddridge County, the Ervolinas have to continue to deal with the air pollution. But should they also worry about their water?
Industry advocates claim that liquid communication between wells is so unlikely that no one needs to worry. But many residents are worried and many are living with contaminated water as a direct result of horizontal drilling activity.
Suellen Hill and her husband Dave are surface owners in Harrison County who have been living with the reality of horizontal drilling since 2008. A complicated reverse osmosis water system was installed in their home and every two weeks bottled water is delivered to them after several surface spills contaminated their water well. Their water was not contaminated as a result of well communication.
But they are concerned about the threat of contamination throughout the region from conventional gas wells and water wells being pressurized by drilling operations.
“I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but I think our legislature and all of the agencies have opened a Pandora’s Box of pollution that is really beyond all of our imagination,” Sue Hill said.
These concerns rose after witnessing strange and surprising things happen on their property.
A site of an old South Penn shallow oil well exists on the Hill farm, about a third of a mile from a horizontal well pad. The oil well there is long-retired.
“It was probably drilled around 1910. It had been plugged. I’m not sure what date. And we discovered in about 2010 or 2011 that this plug was actually blown out of the ground.”
It’s a troubling thought because abandoned and conventional wells can be full of carcinogenic toxins. Their casings that cut through the water table, if they are still intact, are not built for pressures applied in horizontal wells. Many experts admit that these potential conduits pose threats to the health of watersheds, air, and the people who exist in the vicinity.