Growing up on a farm in rural Central New York State, I learned the values of hard work, integrity, and leaving things better than I found them. I loved to spend time outside, hiking in the woods or hunting for trilobite fossils in the Devonian shale outcrops in the gorge behind my house. I think that’s where my fascination with geology began. Earth science was my favorite class in high school. When I got to college, I knew I wanted to be a geology major, but I had no idea what to do with that knowledge when I graduated. No one at my small liberal arts college ever mentioned the idea of working in the oil and gas industry as a career option. I never thought much about where the energy I consumed and the synthetic materials I used came from.
After finishing my undergraduate coursework, I had the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree in geology at Louisiana State University. I went to study with a hydrogeology and geochemistry professor because I was very interested in water. I was immediately exposed to petroleum geology and found the oil and gas industry fascinating. To think of the science and engineering that went into finding and developing the natural resources we have to power our world was awe-inspiring. Generations of intelligent, hardworking people have brought and continue to bring energy in the form of oil and natural gas to our country and the world.
The environmental track record of the oil and gas industry had been less than stellar, and it had earned an ugly reputation. The industry was seen by those outside of it as an agent for extraction at all costs and with little to no consideration for the environmental impact caused by its activities. When I decided to pursue a career in the industry, many of my friends and family were surprised to hear that I would work in such a “dirty profession.” At that time, I had inherited the industry’s legacy – not through tradition or family history, but by choosing to be a part of it.
My career as a geologist has taken me to Louisiana, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania. I have been involved in the oil and gas industry in some fashion my entire working life. Whether I was working to improve hydrocarbon production from wells in the Gulf of Mexico, assisting commercial clients in understanding the environmental liabilities of purchasing properties with existing oil and gas assets in Texas, geosteering horizontal wells in the Marcellus Shale, organizing a sizeable conventional well plugging program, or managing shallow groundwater methane migration investigations in Pennsylvania, I always found myself at the intersection where energy, environment and people meet. I love talking with people about our industry, why it’s essential to our society, how our equipment works, and what we can do better.
Pennsylvania is a state with a rich history of oil and gas production. Sir Edwin Drake drilled the first American oil well near Titusville in 1859. Within 15 years, the hills of northwestern Pennsylvania were dotted with oil wells, and production went from zero to nearly 16,000 barrels per day. The U.S. oil and gas industry is said to have been born in the Keystone State.
Having worked in Pennsylvania for an independent natural gas producer for the last 15 years, I spent a fair amount of time in the field, and I saw many orphaned and abandoned wells firsthand. Every well was different. Wells with corroded casing and tubing, wells with old logs used as plugs, and wells left as open holes in the ground. Many were leaking gas, oil, water or some combination thereof. Wells once drilled on hillsides that had been timbered in the early 20th century were now in dense forests. Wells drilled long ago in farmers’ fields were now in residential neighborhoods. I felt sympathy for property owners who were left with a problem they didn’t create, with no legally responsible party, and the government overburdened with a massive backlog of wells to plug, and impacted land surface to restore.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) estimates that more than 300,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled since the Drake Well. At least one-third of these wells were drilled before modern well permitting and plugging requirements were established. Thousands of wells have yet to be identified, registered and cataloged. Wells encountered with no legal owner, as determined by a legal title review, are considered “orphaned” and become the state’s responsibility. Pennsylvania has nearly 7,000 orphaned wells and 20,000 wells considered “abandoned.” These are non-producing wells for which the state is currently assessing ownership responsibility. Pennsylvania has an endless inventory of wells to plug and minimal funds to do the work.
Despite all the good things the industry has done over the last 150 years to bring energy to our nation and the world, I could no longer ignore the legacy I had inherited as a member of the profession. Something needed to be done. I wanted to leave a legacy of collaboration, education and environmental improvement. I saw opportunities to use the knowledge I had gained as a geologist in the oil and gas industry to benefit people and the environment. Perhaps some like-minded people saw what I saw and wanted to make a difference, too.
I learned about The Well Done Foundation (WDF) in early 2021 as the nonprofit organization was preparing to plug an orphaned well in northwest Pennsylvania. What started as one man’s mission to plug orphaned wells emitting tons of methane each year into the big skies above Montana quickly grew into a national entity dedicated to improving the environment and getting local rig hands to work.
WDF developed a holistic approach to addressing the problem of orphaned wells across the United States, collaborating with landowners, regulators, environmental groups and industry professionals. A day in the field with WDF in September 2021 showed me that there were people out there who wanted to change the outcome of decades of disregard. They were working tirelessly to change the legacy my industry had left for us, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Over the next 12 months, I followed WDF as it plugged wells nationwide. In the fall of 2022, I was invited to consider joining WDF. The thought of leaving my corporate job and joining the nonprofit world was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. The very thing that I wanted to do was being offered to me. This was my chance to change the legacy! I jumped in with both feet.
I joined WDF in February 2023. My responsibility and privilege are now to identify problematic orphaned wells located east of the Mississippi River and get them plugged. Together with landowners, regulators and contractors, we work through the complicated process from project conception to final site restoration using private funding. We use state-of-the-art technology to quantify methane emission reductions achieved by plugging wells. Additionally, we are leading the conversations about how well plugging is good for local workforces and economies. As an organization, we have plugged 27 wells in five states. We can and will be known as the generation that changed the legacy.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are more than two million orphaned or abandoned wells in the United States. It’s easy to become overwhelmed when considering the sheer magnitude of the work left for us by prior generations of our industry. One person or one organization can’t solve the problem by itself. As individuals, within our organizations, and as an industry, we can change the legacy we leave to future generations. Let’s work together to make a positive impact, one well at a time.
Headline photo: Using soapy water to qualitatively detect gas coming from a leaky orphaned well in a state forest in Pennsylvania. Photos courtesy of the Well Done Foundation.
Amanda Veazey has 25 years of experience as a geologist in the oil and gas and environmental consulting industries. She is currently the Vice President of The Well Done Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Bozeman, Montana, that plugs orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells across the United States. When she’s not hiking in the woods or measuring methane at orphaned wells, Veazey enjoys knitting, solving Wordle puzzles, and watching Scandinavian drama series on TV. She lives with her family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Photography 144.
Oil and gas operations are commonly found in remote locations far from company headquarters. Now, it's possible to monitor pump operations, collate and analyze seismic data, and track employees around the world from almost anywhere. Whether employees are in the office or in the field, the internet and related applications enable a greater multidirectional flow of information – and control – than ever before.