[Footsteps, leaves crunching, sound fades up]

Laurie Barr 00:00
What is that? Hey! It’s an old drill rig! Oh my god, I’ve never seen one before! It’s an old drill rig! Oh my god.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 00:27

Laurie Barr 00:28
That’s an old drill rig, I mean a really old one! Oh my god, that could be in a museum. Holy shit!

[Background chatting and walking continues, faded under narration]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 00:33
This is Laurie Barr. She’s an environmental activist and a citizen scientist, and she’s taken me into the Allegheny National Forest in Northwest Pennsylvania. [Mandolin music fades in]

We’re hunting for abandoned oil and gas wells.

Laurie Barr 00:56
Yay! Lookit, an old oil can! Hey, it’s got a label on it you can still read!

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 00:56
Oh my gosh. Oh yeah. Wow.

Laurie Barr 00:57
Now, that’s a souvenir. Look at that, it’s got a lid, and everything. Look at the pour spout. You want a souvenir from the oil field?

[Background chatting and walking continues, faded under narration]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 01:03
Laurie lives about an hour away from the forest in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. But she comes out this way a lot to do this work, especially in early Spring, after the snow’s melted and before the summer brush grows in, when she can really see what she’s looking for. She straps on rubber boots, a fluorescent vest, and heads into the woods. She comes out here with her friend, Barbara.

Barbara Laxon 01:25
I forgot to tell you, that’s one of Laurie’s kind of quirks.

Laurie Barr 01:30

Barbara Laxon 01:30
She takes home all this garbage from the oil field.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 01:31

[Background chatting and walking continues, faded under narration]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 01:33
This one well that Laurie found is a big one, with all of its parts still intact. A long metal panel is propped up by a stand that’s around four feet tall. It’s connected to a wellhead on one side that’s sticking into the ground for drilling. Next to the whole thing is a large wheel with six spokes that would turn and power the drill rig. The whole thing is completely rusted out. So, it’s amazing that it hasn’t fallen apart yet,

Laurie Barr 02:00
Hold on, let me just get the GPS coordinates. [Beeping sound slowly starts]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 02:06

That beeping sound is a methane detector. Laurie’s testing to see how much the well is emitting. She does this with most wells. Then she snaps a photo and takes down its location. She’ll use that information to report the well to the State Department of Environmental Protection. The plan is to put the well on a list to be plugged and safely capped off.

Laurie Barr 02:27
I just have to do one more thing. But I know what this is gonna do… [Beeping speeds up, grows louder]

[Background chatting and walking continues, faded under narration]

Audrey Carleton 02:32
This stretch of the Allegheny National Forest where Laurie’s taken me is littered with old oil wells. When you first walk in, it looks like any other forest. But when you look down, we’ll see a maze of skinny rusty old pipes lining the forest floor. And every few minutes, you’ll run into an old tank or a rusty pumpjack. And it’s not just this forest: Pennsylvania as a whole has nearly half a million abandoned wells. Estimates do vary, but that’s a ballpark most researchers are confident in.

[Background chatting sounds fade back up]

Laurie Barr 03:05
Look, it’s got, you could probably read that, it says “Bradford PA.”

[Background chatting and walking continues, faded down under narration]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 03:09
The problem is, the state government only knows where somewhere between 2 and 4% of them lie. And that’s not good, because many of these wells are slowly leaking methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 86 times more potent in its effect on global warming than carbon dioxide. And abandoned wells are the 10th largest source of it in the U.S. So, their impact on climate change is massive.

[Beeping sound speeds up to a steady, quick pace]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 03:34
So, Laurie tries to help. She treads into the forest with old maps that she’s found in state archives. She brings a camera, a satellite and a methane detector. And when she finds a well, she sends this information to the government to request that it be plugged.

[Background chatting sounds fade back up]

Audrey Carleton (scene) 03:49
Very successful! You found three!

Laurie Barr 03:51

[Background chatting and walking continues, faded down under narration]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 03:52

The most recent estimates found that abandoned wells are responsible for 5 to 8% of Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions. So, correctly plugging them could take a sizeable chunk out of that.

[Interview tape fades up]

Laurie Barr 04:03
We only have so many carbon credits. All of these 2,000 foot low pressure wells, they’re leaking a little bit. When you add up to 750,000, that’s a significant amount.

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 04:16
So, figuring out how much methane a well is emitting is important. But sometimes Laurie tests the wells for depth too. [Sound of rock hitting the side of an abandoned well pipe]

Many of them go down for thousands of feet. So, if you throw a rock into one, it can take 10 or 20 seconds for it to hit the bottom. [Sound of rock hitting the bottom of an abandoned oil well]

Depending on where they are and how far down they go, Laurie can get a pretty good estimate for when the well was drilled. She makes it look easy, but Laurie has a sixth sense with this stuff. As we’re walking through the woods, she periodically stops to call out…

[Background tape fades up]

Laurie Barr 04:48
I see it! We got one!

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 04:50
Ah, that’s amazing…

Laurie Barr 04:51

[Background chatting and walking continues, faded under narration]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 04:51
Usually, what Laurie’s pointing to is so far away that I can’t see it. But she knows what she’s doing. What she’s looking for can really vary. Sometimes an orphan well just looks like a small pipe sticking out of the ground. Sometimes it looks like an entire old rig. Sometimes it’s rusted out. Other times it’s coated in paint. Sometimes it’s empty, and other times it’s filled with wax or sludge or liquid. But every well is important to Laurie. And when we’re testing for methane levels, she’ll say…

[Background tape – chatting, walking – fades up]

Laurie Barr 05:20
Okay, my ears are starting to ring. I can’t smell it, but my ears are ringing.

[Background tape fades back down]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 05:25
So yeah, a sixth sense. And Laurie’s memory with this stuff is impeccable. What’s funny is that when she’s not well hunting, Laurie does have a tendency to lose things, like her sunglasses or her car keys. But with orphaned and abandoned wells, Laurie is like a sponge. She knows the forest like the back of her hand, she can tell you precisely where a well is, seemingly on memory and instinct alone. She’s read hundreds of archives on the history of drilling, and knows exactly what she’s looking at almost every time. It’s tiring work, but Laurie loves it.

Laurie Barr 05:57
[Footsteps, hiking sounds in background] Hiking for wells is sort of my recreation, and hunting, it’s something I do for fun. You know? But I have been discouraged in the past, because I was dumb, you know, like in the beginning, and I thought if you just like, raise awareness to these things, you know, people would go, like, ‘Oh!’

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 06:15
So you were, at the beginning, naive?

Laurie Barr 06:17
Yeah, I’m sure that a lot of things changed because of our work, because even people in the oil field don’t know what an abandoned well is. [Mandolin music fades up] People just didn’t know. Just like me, I had a pipe sticking out of the ground.

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 06:30
Everything Laurie has learned about well hunting in the last 10 years, she’s taught herself. She’s reported countless wells and gotten entire sections of oil fields added to the state’s plugging list. [Mandolin music fades up, subtle musical clapping sound begins] The government does send out its own inspectors to look for wells, too. But none of this work is moving fast enough. What’s been found is still only a minuscule fraction of what’s really out there. And the state has only been plugging 10 to 12 wells per year. If Laurie’s not out there looking, it feels like no one will be. So, she keeps going out. Because the alternative is to let that list of wells just sit there and emit for years.

[Mandolin tape fades out, interview tape fades in]

Laurie Barr 07:11
We know that there’s like 12,000 in the database. It’s millenniums long. I did the math one time, I forgot what it was, but it was like…

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 07:20
I can’t even…

Laurie Barr 07:20
More than one millennium.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 07:22
…let my brain think about it. It’s too overwhelming.

Barbara Laxon 07:28
And they’re still they’re digging em.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 07:29

Laurie Barr 07:30
Mhm. There’s no fiscal mechanism in place to take care of these long term. You know, like, by the time you get to the end of the list, you would’ve have had to have re-plugged those wells many times over. So…

Barbara Laxon 07:31
This is gonna be forever.

Laurie Barr 07:44

Barbara Laxon 07:45

[Interview tape fades out]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 07:48
It’s a millenniums long problem that dates back centuries in Pennsylvania, because this is the birthplace of oil and gas.

Narrator (Archival tape) 07:55
[Archival tape static fades in] Perhaps no state or nation in all the history of man has been the deciding ground of so many human issues as has the state of Pennsylvania…

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 08:02
It was near where Laurie and I go about hunting at the very first commercial oil well was drilled in 1859 by a man named Edwin Drake. Drake was drilling for fuel for kerosene lamps when he struck oil. [Archival tape – 1900s violin music builds up] The technique he used would quickly launch a booming industry.

Archival Tape (Character playing old oil driller) 08:19
Run, quick! Find Kernel Drake and tell him we struck oil! Go on, run! Run!

[Archival tape continues running in background]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 08:25
As early as the 1860s, oil had become extremely profitable in Pennsylvania. Everyone wanted to cash in. But as soon as too many producers hit the market, the price of oil crashed. This happened over and over again in a cycle of booms and busts for 150 years. And with each one, a wave of producers would jump ship, ditching their oil wells and leaving them, just sitting there, to continue emitting dangerous gases like methane. [Mandolin music fades up in background] So, a lot of what we see in the forest has been sitting there for over a century and has been leaking that whole time.

Ed Atwood 09:08
[Footsteps, rustling, gentle rain sound of scene tape fades up] Okay, my property goes from the blacktop down there, to the blacktop up here, which is Mohawk. And it’s 370 feet wide and look it, the leaves are already coming out…

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 09:20
This is that wood. He lives in Warren, Pennsylvania. He’s 78. Laurie and Barbara and I stopped by his house on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

Ed Atwood 09:29
These wells never had any effect on me because I hadn’t built yet, but I did get least gas off of them when I first built.. [Voice fades out and chat continues in background]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 09:37
Ed has an abandoned well on his property that he told me he’s been asking the state to plug for 40 years. He hasn’t had any luck. Five years ago, it leaked into his home and sent a sludgy orange substance through his faucet.

Ed Atwood 09:49
[Rain sounds in background fade up] This stuff went through my water well. It actually burnt one of the pumps up, you know, we didn’t drink the water, but we bathed in it. That was a major mistake.

Laurie Barr 09:59

Ed Atwood 09:59
But that stuff would come out of the well, and it would be in the toilet basin back, to the back end, it was like big red sludge. Finally, I figured out how to do it. First, I dipped it out with rubber gloves and put it in a bucket. Well, then I got a shop vac, and I’d suck it out. Every week, I had to suck that shit out.

Laurie Barr 10:20

Ed Atwood 10:21
And it’s from down in the bottom of the oil well, see?

Laurie Barr 10:24
Yeah. Yeah.

Ed Atwood 10:24
It comes up and gets into the water. And then you have it in your water.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 10:30
What happened when you bathed in that water? You said it was like, did you get rashes and stuff? [Rustling sounds, Laurie singing, group laughing builds up and continues in background]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 10:39
Ed takes off his jacket to show me a series of red bumps all over his arm. It’s a skin rash that he thinks came from bathing in his polluted water.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 10:49
The pink stuff? This is a rash. Is that frack rash? That’s what they call frack rash?

Ed Atwood 10:51
Yeah. I guess that’s what it is! It don’t go away. Don’t even heal up.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 10:58
Is it painful?

Ed Atwood 10:59

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 11:00
How long have you had it?

Ed Atwood 11:02
Since we bathed in the water.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 11:04
Which is how long?

Ed Atwood 11:06
About five years now. I just showed it to the doctor the other day. I got it all over me. You see it on my neck?

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 11:15
Yeah. What did the doctor say?

Ed Atwood 11:17
Well, he gave me medicine for it. The medicine didn’t do a damn thing for the rash. But I got totally mobile because it was a steroid.

Laurie Barr 11:27
Oh, yeah.

Ed Atwood 11:28
I got totally mobile. I could walk and jump, and everything else. [Group laughter] It didn’t do a goddamn thing for the rash.

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 11:36
Ed’s a good sport about it. But his wife has rashes too. [Mandolin music fades up] And the sores are painful for both of them. Getting a diagnosis has been difficult.

Cases like Ed’s are what’s kept Laurie interested in well-hunting for the last decade, despite everything she’s up against in oil country. She and Ed say that state regulation is lax to the point of being dysfunctional. Fossil fuels are a powerful lobbying force in Pennsylvania. Some people say they practically run the halls of Harrisburg, where the state legislature is. And all of that has its consequences. When we’re talking about abandoned wells, that could mean polluted water or skin rashes like Ed’s. In the most extreme cases, the risks are far worse. [Mandolin music fades out]

[Wind, rustling sounds fade up, car door closes] On our last day together, Laurie, Barbara and I took a trip over the Pennsylvania border to Allegheny, New York, where we meet a man named Bill Baxter.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 12:34
Am I okay parked where I am, or should I pull in closer?

Bill Baxter 12:36
Ah, it’s alright up here.

[Rustling sounds, camera sounds, walking sounds and scene tape continues in background]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 12:39
That’s Bill. He’s lived in this neighborhood for a few decades. He collects cars and antiques. His garage is covered in them. A few years ago, the oil industry moved into his area and started drilling. He told me the neighborhood hadn’t been an active oil site for decades before that, so the area is dotted with abandoned wells. When new wells are drilled next to old ones, they’re at risk of communicating by sending fluid at a high pressure underground between each other. And old wells are always at risk of leaking methane, an explosive, out of their metal casing and into nearby homes and waterways. And this can get scary. In November of 2019, a house exploded just a few blocks down from where Baxter lives. The state’s investigation is still underway, but for the last year-and-a-half, inspectors and community members have been suspecting that gas leaks from nearby wells were the cause.

Bill takes us to the land where the house used to be. There’s nothing there anymore. Just a large, empty field of grass.

Bill Baxter 13:39
[Wind sounds and scene tape fade in] The house didn’t really catch on fire, it just exploded and went all over the place.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 13:44

Bill Baxter 13:44
I mean, just pieces, like this big around.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 13:46
Yeah. Just all over, like all sides of the street?

Bill Baxter 13:48
[Nodding] Ohhh god.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 13:49
Oh my god, it’s so crazy. So you heard it from the house?

Bill Baxter 13:52
Oh yeah. It shook my whole house. I thought that a car had hit my house.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 13:57
Oh my god. So scary! And you came immediately out?

Bill Baxter 14:00
I came out, because I wanted to see if there was any fire or any smoke, and I looked, and the house was blown up. I thought somebody was in it, so I started running up to it. That’s when the fire department came up, through, told me not to go in there.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 14:12

Bill Baxter 14:12
I said there might be somebody in the house!

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 14:14

Bill Baxter 14:15
They said, ‘no, we’ll take care of it.’

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 14:17
Oh my gosh. I mean, it’s good of you to check but… [car door opens, scene tape fades out]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 14:24
[Mandolin music fades up] This is not the first time an explosion like this has happened. In 2011, a different home in Bradford, Pennsylvania exploded in connection to nearby abandoned wells. Another house just a few miles away erupted a couple of months before that. The owners of both houses survived. But Laurie says the explosions are what got her into this work.

Laurie Barr 14:43
[Footsteps, rustling, walking sound of scene tape fades up] When the house blew up, I had no idea what an abandoned well looked like. But I knew that there were old gas wells in my neighborhood. And there was a pipe in my backyard, right next to my house in Roulette. And I tried pulling it out of the ground, and I couldn’t. So, I just put a bird feeder on it. And I never thought about it, until what I did was I went online, and I learned about how to get to the abandoned well inventory. And I said, ‘I want to see what an abandoned well looks like, I want to go visit abandoned wells.’ So, the first one I went to visit was in…[Scene tape fades out]

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 15:30
Even after 10 years, Laurie still loves well-hunting. [Mandolin music fades up] But it’s also clear to me that she feels like she has to. The number of incidents that Laurie’s seen abandoned wells cause are too many to name. And until these wells are plugged, accidents are just going to keep happening.

But first, someone has to find them. And for all the wells that Laurie’s uncovered in the last 10 years, there are thousands and thousands more.

A few of the people Laurie’s worked with over the years have burned out and left this line of work, she tells me in the car. Because the wins are few and far between.

Laurie Barr 16:07
[Car rustling and background sounds of scene tape fade in] It’s hard to get a well from getting reported onto the database.

Audrey Carleton (Scene) 16:12

Laurie Barr 16:13
A family out here, a couple worked for 25 years. It took 25 years to get it on their wells on the database. And they waive regulations all the time. They’re not written in stone, and that’s the way it is. They do whatever they want. And this is like a brotherhood. Oil and gas is in people’s blood. It’s part of their culture. They don’t turn on each other. They defend each other with these stupid regulations.

Audrey Carleton (Narration) 16:43
But someone has to hold the government and the industry to account. [Mandolin music fades up, then stops]

So, Laurie is still going out, in Pennsylvania, in the forest, well hunting.

Laurie Barr 17:06
[Scene sounds, rustling, footsteps fade up] Wow! We got a well! Let’s wait until, like, Easter Saturday to report this… [Scene fades out]