Orphan Wells Project - Introduction

In 2003 the Venango PA Senior Environmental Corps was contacted by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement (EASI) with a proposal to have our group members look for abandoned oil and gas wells on public land in Venango County. DEP provided initial funding for safety equipment and GPS units and technical assistance from PA DCNR, and Forestry. In 2004 the group was trained by DEP personnel on what to look for and how to collect and record data when a well was found. The data collected is provided to DEP and shared on our website. Initial work was conducted in Oil Creek State Park. With DEP's encouragement the project was spread to other public lands such as Game Land and State Forest Land. Due to budget cuts and changes in priorities DEP funding stopped but the project continued due to the dedicated efforts of a group of motivated volunteers. In the years that followed the group got extensive "on the job" training and developed useful techniques for spotting the signs of abandoned wells. Each year new well hunters are added to the group and well hunters from previous years provide extensive training to new members.

The first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859 at a site along Oil Creek just south of Titusville. But it was not until 1956 that PA began permitting new drilling in coal areas, and not until 1963 that all new drilling required a permit. The Oil and Gas Act of 1984 required well operators to register all oil and gas wells, which had not been registered under previous law. A 1992 amendment to the Oil and Gas Act allows DEP to designate an abandoned well, with no identifiable owner/operator in the recent past, as an “orphan well”. Orphan well status, when approved by DEP, exempts the landowner or leaseholder from the obligation to plug such wells. In the period before regulation, many wells were abandoned without proper plugging and there are few records of their exact location. After the Oil and Gas Act of 1984, many lease holders and well owners failed to register abandoned wells.

It has long been known that the bore hole created by oil, gas and water wells can act as a conduit and allow substances from normally separate layers to combine and in some cases contaminate other layers. To prevent this problem wells are cased using metal and cement. When done properly this protective layer does its job. The problem is it does not last forever. Cement cracks, pipes rusts and in some cases the job just wasn't done right in the first place. And the casing only goes down to about 50 feet below the last usable aquifer. Many early wells were cased but no cement was used to fill the annulus outside the casing. During World War II the casing from many wells was removed to turn in as scrap metal for the war effort. When these thing happen there is a problem.

A map of Abandoned Wells found by Venango PaSEC and wells plugged by DEP
See the Map

Photos of some abandoned wells

Click on image for larger view

Leaking well
Well leaking oil and brine into stream

Abandoned well
Abandoned well with storage tank in background

Well casing

Open hole

Perilous Pathways: Behind The Staggering Number Of Abandoned Wells In Pennsylvania

Abandoned Well: A well that has been out of production for a year or more. (Wells can be on "inactive" status for years.)

Orphan Well: Abandoned well and from which no economic benefit was earned after April 18, 1979. When wells are designated as orphan, the DEP is responsible for plugging them.

DEP Well Plugging Program

Abandoned Well Types (Our system)

Wood casing
Wood Casing

Metal casing
Metal Casing

Open hole
Open Hole


abandoned gas well
Abandoned gas well

Slide Show of Abandoned Wells.

Video: Unplugged well found 4/09/12 (methane leak Allegheny National Forest).

Video: Abandoned well leaking water into stream.

Video: Spewing batch of wells in the Allegheny National Forest.

Video: Fracking fluid returning through old well.