Gas and oil wells in Ohio are leaking. Who’s responsible for fixing them?
There are thousands of oil and gas wells scattered across eastern Ohio. They can leak for months without a fix.
More than 270,000 oil and natural gas wells dot the landscape of Ohio. They’ve accumulated over centuries and they’ve been a big economic boon for the state since the first one was drilled in 1860.
Eastern Ohio is especially attractive for oil and gas drilling because of an energy-producing geological formation there. Known as “Clinton sand,” overlapping layers of shale and sandstone produce trillions of cubic feet of gas.
The region boasts 80,000 Clinton wells built to harvest that energy. About half are still active today, but many are in a state of disrepair. They’re rusty, covered in flaky paint, and some leak for years on end with no fix in sight.
Rachel Wagoner, a journalist with Farm and Dairy Magazine, spent more than six months investigating this issue for her piece “Failure by design: Leaky gas and oil wells slip through the cracks.”
She found that some companies don’t fix leaky wells – or take a long time to do so – despite rules put in place by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Though the leaks don’t pose a threat to public safety, they affect the farming industry, and landowners who live nearby are left frustrated by corporate inaction and government bureaucracy.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
On leaky wells in eastern Ohio
"[Wells] are leaking and some of them in really spectacular and gross ways. One well [in Trumbull County] really struck me. The well casing is coming up out of the ground. There's water surrounding it and the gas is bubbling up through the water, so it's really gross, brackish. There's green algae in the water. It looks like a witch's cauldron, and it's just constantly bubbling. And that's what it's been doing for over five years now, just bubbling away, letting methane out into the environment."
On the companies responsible for fixing those wells
"The well that I just described that has the bubbling gas, nothing has been done with that one. The other one that I talked about in my story, it had a more mild leak. You could hear it hissing. That one was an easier fix, and [the gas company] put some epoxy on it and eventually that fixed it. But it took several months for that to get done.
And that's the funny thing. When you involve the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates oil and gas in Ohio, if they go out and inspect a well and notice violations – if it's leaking or there's some other issue – they issue a violation. Then they give you a certain amount of days to get it fixed. It's usually just a few days. They're not given months. There's a timeline and some of these owners are thumbing their nose at the rules."
On Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources, who’s responsible for enforcing the rules
"[The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is] really trying to do everything that they can in their power. They just don't have enough. They need more people. They need more time. I think they need more money. They just need more of everything because the problem is so staggering in Ohio.
These wells that I talk about in my story, they have an owner, so there is a responsible party who should be fixing them. But on top of that, the state is responsible for more than 30,000 orphan wells that have no owner. Some of them are leaking, some of them are not. But the state is tasked specifically to plug those wells. So, there's just a long list of stuff that needs to be done."
On the landowners left to deal with the consequences
"For the well that I mentioned that has the bubbling gas coming up through the water, it’s at the edge of this fellow's hayfield. In the fall, he would let his cattle graze in that field. He doesn't feel safe doing that anymore. So, he has lost usable land that he would use to manage his animals.
I'm sure it's very much the same [for other landowners], just very specific problems to them. That doesn't affect anyone else. But just because it's not a widespread public safety issue doesn't mean it doesn't matter."