Historic and Modern Approaches for the Discovery of Abandoned Wells for Methane Emissions Mitigation in Oil Creek State Park, Pennsylvania


Hundreds of oil wells were drilled along Oil Creek in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s, birthing the modern oil industry. No longer in operation, many wells are now classified as abandoned, and, due to their age, their locations are either unknown or inaccurately recorded. These historic-well sites present environmental, safety, and economic concerns in the form of possible methane leaks and physical hazards. Airborne magnetic and LiDAR surveys were conducted in the Pioneer Run watershed in Oil Creek State Park to find abandoned wells in a historically significant but physically challenging location. Wells were drilled in this area prior to modern geolocation and legal documentation. Although a large number of old wells were abandoned summarily without remediation of the site, much of the land area within Oil Creek State Park is now covered in trees and dense underbrush, which can obscure wellheads. The thick vegetation and steep terrain limited the possibility of ground-based surveys to easily find well sites for methane emissions studies. The data from remote sensing surveys were used to corroborate potential well locations from historic maps and photographs. Potential well sites were verified in a ground-based field survey and monitored for methane emissions. Two historic photographs documenting oil activity in the late 1800s were georeferenced using a combination of magnetic and LiDAR data. LiDAR data, which were more useful in georeferencing and in field verification, identified 290 field locations in the Pioneer Run watershed, 86% of which were possible well sites. Sixty-two percent of the ground-verified wells remained unplugged and comprised the majority of leaking wells. The mean methane emissions factor for unplugged wells was 0.027 ± 0.099 kg/day, lower than other Appalachian Basin methane emissions estimates. LiDAR was used for the first time, in combination with an airborne magnetic survey, to reveal underground oil industry features and inform well identification and remediation efforts in difficult-to-navigate regions. In the oldest oil fields, where well casing has been removed or wood conductor casing was installed, historic photographs provide additional lines of evidence for oil wells where ground disturbances have concealed surface features. Identification of well sites is necessary for mitigation efforts, as unplugged wells emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

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This work was performed in support of the US Department of Energy’s Fossil Energy Crosscutting Technology Research Program. The Research was executed through the NETL Research and Innovation Center’s Natural Gas Infrastructure Program. Research performed by Leidos Research Support Team (LRST) staff was conducted under the RSS contract 89243318CFE000003. Additional funding through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Fellowship Program supported the research. Andrew Tinker of the NETL contractor USSE2 aided in field work in Pennsylvania. GAV of the NETL aided in magnetic data collection and processing. Susan Bates of the Drake Well Museum provided access to historical documents. The Pennsylvania Department for the Conservation of Natural Resources provided access to Oil Creek State Park for field work.

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Saint-Vincent, P.M.B., Sams, J.I., Mundia-Howe, M. et al. Historic and Modern Approaches for the Discovery of Abandoned Wells for Methane Emissions Mitigation in Oil Creek State Park, Pennsylvania. Environmental Management (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-020-01420-3

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  • LiDAR
  • Magnetometry
  • Oil and natural gas
  • Abandoned wells
  • Historical photos
  • Greenhouse gases
  • Methane