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State forest project aiming to plug abandoned wells

It’s estimated that there are over 200,000 orphaned and abandoned oil wells across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

A project on the Cornplanter State Forest — aims to plug over 60 of them.

The forest — which is headquartered in North Warren — covers 1,585 acres in Forest, Crawford and Warren counties.

The 60 wells targeted in this project are all located on forest land in Forest County outside of Tionesta.

District Forester Cecile Stelter explained that each of the abandoned wells looks different.

Some look like what you’d expect — a small cylindrical hole. Others are just simply a hole in the ground.

The project is split into four phases — the first 12 wells to be plugged were awarded to Howard Drilling, LLC of Mount Jewett for $198,000.

Stelter explained that workers “don’t know what they’re getting into until they are engaged in this process.”

She explained that the depth has to be determined, anything in the well shaft removed and then the shaft is filled with concrete.

“Each one of them is different,” she said, noting that the first well was 200 feet down and required 90 bags of concrete to full. “It’s very involved.”

Stelter said some of the wells date to the 1950s and earlier. The challenge for workers, she said, is to understand the historical methods for drilling wells but also the modern technology for how to plug them.

The wells included in this project are considered orphaned and abandoned.

That means there is “no responsible party,” Stelter said, for the well. Staff tried to recreate some of the records but it’s been challenging as the leases have been split, brought back together and repeatedly sold.

The lack of a responsible party could be due to a lease owner going out of business — or dying — or companies folding.

Information from the Bureau of Forestry highlights several potential risks to the existence of these unplugged wells ranging from the discharge of oil or brine to the land surface, methane leaks both to the atmosphere and groundwater and “blowouts” due to pressure from unconventional gas drilling operations in the vicinity.

Stelter said that the aim is to take the sites of these wells and have them revert naturally to typical state forest land.

She said the project has been under discussion for more than 20 years and has brought together the resource of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources — of which the Bureau of Forestry is a part — as well as the state Department of Environmental Protection’s technical oil and gas expertise and the Department of General Services, which handles purchasing for state government.

“We are really fortunate to have this project going forward,” she said.

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