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Writing Entry: StateImpact Pennsylvania

Written by Tim Lambert, witf Multimedia News Director | Feb 2, 2013 7:07 PM

StateImpact Pennsylvania is a collaborative project among witf in Harrisburg, WHYY in Philadelphia and NPR to cover Pennsylvania’s booming energy economy. The initiative seeks to inform and engage the public on energy issues through data analysis, accountability reporting and well-crafted broadcast and digital narratives. WHYY and witf maintain complete editorial control over the content.

Its goal is to explain complex energy issues to listeners. That means tackling complex subjects like underground gas leaks, but also profiling the quirky people who work on drilling rigs, and unconventional energy sources.


Story 1: Today’s Butter Is Tomorrow’s Energy; 1/13/12

As the Pennsylvania Farm Show nears the end of another year, what happens to its famous butter sculpture?

The thousand pounds of butter will be converted into energy at a central Pennsylvania farm.

How does that happen?

StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Scott Detrow explains.


More than anything else inside the sprawling Harrisburg complex, the butter sculpture symbolizes the Farm Show.


It sits in the middle of the main hall, attracting thousands of visitors.



“I’m standing here at the butter sculpture display. It’s a boy leading a cow at a county fair. And he’s talking to what looks like a dairy princess. It’s more than six feet tall and weighs more than a thousand pounds. And there’s about a dozen people here taking a look at the sculpture, taking pictures.”


So how will the butter become energy?


Mary Hoffman and Linda Mustacchia are both from Allentown.


Standing in front of the sculpture, they had no idea how the transformation would happen.



“I don’t know, but I’m glad they’re doing that.

At least it won’t be wasted.

That’s a good thing. I like butter, but that’s a lot of butter.”


Mustacchia offered a guess.



“Methane digestor, whatever that is.”


She had spotted a sign.



“It tells you there.”


I needed to find an expert.


So I walked across the farm show complex.


Past the animals




And the “sheep to shawl” contest”




And the kitchencraft exhibition




To the Penn State University College of Agriculture Sciences display, where I met a man with a big button labeled, “expert.”



“I’m Glen Kauffman. I direct the university farms at the Penn State University campus.

And you can explain how butter becomes energy.



Kauffman says the butter will be dumped into a big heated tank called a digester, where microorganisms will feast on the butter.



“Those microorganisms can break those fat molecules apart into the less complex molecules, and then further take that to produce a gas called methane, which burns readily in an engine, and can be converted into a gas called electricity.”


The bacteria – the microorganisms – they’re the ones doing all the work.



Those organisms at a hundred degrees, are working hard. They’re trying to live. They’re trying to reproduce. They’re trying to eat food, be happy, make more bacterial.


Those microorganisms will be working for a Juniata County farmer named Steve Reinford.



“So the process will take me about five days to feed the butter through the digester system.”


Once the butter’s loaded in, Reinford will turn up the heat, so the organisms can do their thing.



“And as it’s heating it’s breaking down. It’s going to take probably up to 25, 30 days to break it down completely. And that’ll make the methane. And then I’m going to run a generator.”


He expects the butter sculpture – or what used to be the butter sculpture – to  power his home and farm for about three days.


Reinford did make sure to visit the Farm Show, to see the sculpture on display.



“I took a lot of pictures of it down there so I’d be able to see it before and after. We’ll actyually enjoy the heat – the electricity in our houses about a week, two weeks from now.”


So there you go. Today’s butter is tomorrow’s energy.


Scott Detrow, StateImpact Pennsylvania.



Story 2: Snakes On A Drilling Rig; 8/17/12


Jobs on natural gas drilling sites can have funny names: there are roustabouts, mud men, doodlebuggers and snake wranglers.


As StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Scott Detrow reports, that last one – snake wrangler – is exactly what it sounds like.




Everyone hates snakes, right?


Even Indiana Jones hates snakes.



There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!

Oh that’s just my pet snake, Reggie.

I hate snakes, Jock. I hate them!


But not everybody.


Matthew Wilson loves snakes.


He’s loved them since he was six years old, when he caught a snake and brought it inside to show his mother.



My mom said, oh, what do you have, Matt? I said I don’t know what it is, mom. She said, Oh, that’s a snake. Isn’t it pretty? I said yeah. That’s pretty neat.


Wilson has been catching snakes ever since – it’s just that these days, he does it professionally.


Wilson works on natural gas drilling sites – well pads and pipelines.


When a worker finds a snake, he calls Wilson.



We remove rattlesnakes in the way, then we take them into the woods and release them.



Drillers are finding more and more timber rattlesnakes as gas operations expand in northeast Pennsylvania.


The snakes are what’s called a "candidate species."


They aren’t protected, but state regulators think the species may be in danger, so Pennsylvania's Fish and Boat Commission is doing a lot of research aimed at tracking and monitoring them.


The Commission has convinced energy companies to hire people like Wilson, who remove snakes from drilling sites, and record their GPS location.


It’s an important job.


And a job that Matt Wilson loves.


It’s just that, sometimes it’s hard to explain to people.



Basically, they think I’m nuts.


Wilson is currently working with Shell, but the company won’t let reporters on their drilling sites.


So on one of his rare days off, he takes me to the Elk State Forest, to look for snakes.


Wilson’s wife, Paula, comes too.


Riding through the forest in a truck, she says she’s also loved snakes since she was little.



My mom said nobody ever wanted to ever empty out pockets on wash day, because they never knew what I was going to have in my pockets. I usually had snakes or worms or frogs.


The thing is, Paula and Matt didn’t know they were both so into snakes until long after they were married.


It wasn't until Matt found a snake during a camping trip that they both realized their shared interest.

Paula now has the same job as Matt, wrangling snakes for natural gas drillers.



The snakes do have their own personality. Some are grumpy…. Some are just real curious what your are.

What’s a grumpy snake like?

They pump up….they’re like haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.



[walking sound]


We drive to a natural gas pipeline path and get out of the car.

Matt and Paula grab their tongs and sacks, and we start looking for snakes in rock clusters and bushes.




The snake is yellow and green. About three feet long.


[bring rattle back up]


Paula says if you catch one snake, it’s a good day.


We see three.


Matt and Paula both say their job is hard, but it's worth it - so much so that Matt has kept wrangling, despite a near-deadly snake bite in 2002.


As proof his work is paying off, Matt points to a recent breakthrough.


Three drillers had found a snake on the road - and one wanted to kill it.



The Pennsylvania fella said I kill everyone I see. I'm a logger and I don't like them. These fellas, because I had been preaching to them, kept him from running the snake over. ..That was the highlight of my summer, at that point.


It was probably a highlight for the snake, too.


Scott Detrow, StateImpact Pennsylvania. 


Story 3: Hunting For Hidden Wells; 10/18/12


Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale boom is bringing a lot of money, a lot of jobs, and a lot of questions to the state.


It's also bringing a lot of wells - more than 8,000 have been drilled within the past few years.


But this isn't Pennsylvania's first energy boom.


The world’s first commercial oil well was drilled here.


Because of that, the state is littered with hundreds of thousands of old oil and gas wells.


And as StateImpact Pennsylvania's Scott Detrow reports, when a new well meets an old well, bad things can happen.








That’s a geyser erupting alongside a rural road in Union Township, Tioga County this summer.


Without warning, it started blasting water and natural gas thirty feet into the air.


In this Youtube video, a landowner asks a firefighter what’s happening.


The geyser spewed for about a week.


And it just so happened that right nearby, Shell was operating three wells tapped into the Marcellus Shale.


Was there a link?


[sound of flaring]


Yes - so much so that the sound you're hearing is Shell burning off natural gas flowing out of its wells.


The company did this to reduce underground pressure.


But the link was a bit more complicated than you’d think.


There was another well nearby.


An old, abandoned well, drilled in 1932.


All four run through underground pockets of natural gas.


Here's what happened: as Shell drilled into a gas pocket, it put pressure on the underground pocket, forcing the gas to look for a way to ease the stress.


The gas found that old, abandoned well, and used its pathway to shoot to the surface.



Gas always wants to go from high pressure to low pressure. So that old well represents a low pressure zone. A natural migration pathway, because it's always trying to seek that. Much like water wants to move downhill, gas wants to move to a low pressure zone.


That’s Fred Baldasarre.


He's investigated this sort of thing for 15 years at Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.


Sitting in his office near Pittsburgh, he plays me another video of another geyser, this one from 2008.





[G:\FM\Cuts\bald 1 dramatic.wav] 

That one was a fairly dramatic one. Because to geyser through 90 feet of fill material vertically - that was a very dramatic one.




This geyser had the same dynamics.


The underground gas, feeling the squeeze from a new well, looked for a way to come out.


It comes across this old well, a perfect elevator to the surface, if it hasn’t been properly sealed with cement.


If it makes it above ground, this flammable gas can gather in water wells, basements, or in extreme cases, spout like a fountain.



So the big challenge for regulators and drilling companies is to find these old wells before it's too late.


It’s not easy, because most of these wells are nearly impossible to find.


People were drilling for oil and gas for nearly a century, before Pennsylvania set down rules for documenting wells.


When the holes ran dry, drillers would simply walk away.


If they did try to plug their wells, they’d often stuff a cannonball or log down the hole.


As time went on, cities and towns were built on top of them, and forests grew back.


Regulators estimate there are probably 200,000 abandoned wells.


At best, they know where four percent of them are.



[sound of car stopping]


Laurie Barr knows this.


She spent more than two years driving around northern Pennsylvania, looking for wells.


We get out of her car on the side of a highway running through the Allegheny National Forest.


[sound of car rushing by]



Barr climbs up a steep hill and into the woods, to show me a rusty, slimy, jagged pipe.


An old wellhead.


 [G:\FM\Cuts\laurie what happens.wav] 

So what happens, depending on the pressure underground or the water table, this pours with water.



[shift ambi to car sound]


Barr says never thought too much about abandoned wells, until a nearby home blew up last year.


[G:\FM\Cuts\laurie what the f.wav]

"I just thought whoa. Like, what the f? Can you imagine stepping out into your driveway to shovel snow, and your house goes poof?"


State regulators blame a leaky abandoned well, drilled in the 1880s.


In this case, a new well wasn't involved.


All on its own, gas found its way up into the well, and then into the home.


Soon, Barr was on a mission.


She read every report she could find about abandoned wells, and began studying old property records and hiking through the woods to find them.


She organized an online well "scavenger hunt," where other people can add well sightings to her growing database


 [G:\FM\Cuts\laurie pizza.wav] 

 This is like a 13-year-old's bedroom with all the pizza boxes laying all over the floor. They're not being responsible. They haven't cleaned up their mess.



 [G:\FM\Cuts\parrish 1.wav] 

 “This is oil city. See those dots? Those are all oil wells.”


There are other, more high-tech ways to look for wells.


Jay Parrish spent nearly a decade as Pennsylvania’s chief geologist. These days he teaches at Penn State.



Parrish is sitting in front of a computer, looking at aerial photos of a western Pennsylvania oil town shot in 1937.


He’s looking for rigs, clearings, access roads - any sign of drilling activity.



 [G:\FM\Cuts\parrish 2.wav] 

“This is the only evidence we have, in many cases, of where a well was drilled. Sometimes the only way you’ll know is to look at a photo and say, Oh, a well was drilled here.”


But this state database is limited, too.


Drilling had been going on for nearly eighty years, before the first comprehensive aerial photos were taken.


So what else can you do?


Drillers sometimes use radar or metal detectors to find wells, too - but oftentimes, scrap collectors have cleared out the steel, so those approaches also have limited value.



And even if it finds a well, the state often can't do much.


Remember that well Laurie showed me on our drive? -- state  regulators know about it.


But it’s not going to be plugged any time soon.


Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection doesn’t have enough money to plug all the abandoned wells it's found.


Gene Pine, runs Pennsylvania's well plugging division.


He says the state can only do triage.


 [G:\FM\Cuts\ABAND WELLS pine 3.wav]

A well that's been out there, there's no evidence at all it's leaking oil or venting gas, and it's not near a home or it's not near a surface water body, like a stream or lake. Then that would be given a lower priority.


The program is funded by a 150 to 250 dollar surcharge on well permits, and has plugged around 20 wells so far this year.




Since it began the project in 1989, the unit has plugged about 28-hundred wells.


 [G:\FM\Cuts\ABAND WELLS pine 4.wav] 

 If you’ve got another 100 thousand plus wells to plug, it’s not something that, for obvious reasons, that we’re going to be able to plug in the next couple of years. It’s something my grandkids might be able to be doing too.



28-hundred wells down.


Between one and 200 thousand to go.


And all that, in the midst of a new drilling boom.


Scott Detrow, StateImpact Pennsylvania



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