The project started with what seemed to be a simple question from a summer intern: How many Marcellus Shale wells does the state have?
Thanks to a plethora of errors in the state data for Marcellus Shale, it's taken staffers at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve 10 months of on-and-off work to answer that question.
"Conservation groups, resource people, regulators, municipal officials, residents who live near wells, we all need someplace to go that you can rely on as the standard," said Powdermill Director John Wenzel. "We hope that's what we've created."
The project was finally completed in recent weeks. The result is what officials believe is the first comprehensive list of every Marcellus Shale well site in the state that has been permitted, drilled, producing, abandoned, expired, shut-in, plugged and ultimately will provide revenue to local governments.
After analyzing all of the data, Powdermill believes that since 2000, the state has permitted 9,848 Marcellus Shale wells, of which 6,391 are either drilled and/or producing. There are currently 2,457 active permits that could eventually be drilled. Another 349 wells have either been abandoned, plugged, declared inactive, shut-in or their status is unknown.
Such a list has long been sought by everyone from researchers, to industry, to public officials, newspaper reporters and the public -- many of whom have at one time or another run into the numerous errors in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's Marcellus Shale data that resulted from the rush to drill over the last three years.
"DEP is overextended, and they can't keep up with the giant boom," said Mr. Wenzel. "And where errors creep in, they can't ferret them out."
Powdermill not only found the errors, it put the data in a format that is easy to search, so you can ask questions about how many wells are in a given town, how many are plugged, or how many are producing, all in one source.
"For us, it's even more important to have this information in a way that's more user-friendly than you can get on DEP's website," said Ephraim Zimmerman, an ecological assessment manager for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which is making use of Powdermill's list. "This will save us a lot of time."
Powdermill is allowing only known researchers or government officials to use the well database. By the end of June, it hopes to have it link through the natural history museum's website so the public can use it, too.
The project began last July, when a Powdermill intern, Josh Krug, a regional planning major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, asked how many wells there were in Pennsylvania.
He began trying to make a list and found quickly that DEP's own data did not agree.
Recognizing the data problems, Mr. Krug began building a list of all the Marcellus Shale wells, a project that Powdermill's GIS manager, James Whitacre continued when Mr. Krug headed back to school.
"I wanted to continue to analyze these discrepancies and to identify them so when people use a data set, they at least understand that there's a subset of wells where there may be a problem," Mr. Whitacre said. "So you can decide do you keep those errors or remove them? Let the researchers decide."
Mr. Whitacre said in compiling his list, he tried to reconcile data from six state data sets: from lists for permits, wells drilled, production, waste, compliance, and the Public Utility Commission's list of wells.
When he first put the list together last fall, he found a 9.5 percent error rate between the lists, a figure that dropped to 6.5 percent more recently, Mr. Whitacre said.
"I do want to give DEP credit," he said. "The errors have been dwindling."
DEP officials have not yet seen the list Powdermill put together.
But spokesman Kevin Sunday wrote in response to written questions: "With error-free data being our goal, we would be more than happy to look at what Powdermill puts together when it is finished and use it to find ways to present our data to the public more accurately and more transparently."
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579.