Western New York towns, once built around oil production, are now grappling with the remnants of a declining industry: abandoned wells dot the region in backyards, nearby schools and the woods. In this project, we found that Allegany County, the state’s one-time powerhouse for commercial drilling, had more abandoned and unplugged wells than active ones. Around the country, these ownerless, orphaned wells became the state’s responsibility, posing a billion-dollar problem and risking air pollution, contaminating groundwater and releasing greenhouse gases. In New York, the act of plugging wells presents not only a financial hurdle, but an emotional one.
The story localized an ongoing national conversation surrounding abandoned wells, giving a nuanced look at how Western New York communities were facing both the dangers of these wells and nostalgia for a declining oil and gas industry that helped create their towns. It highlighted the origins of US oil drilling and the ensuing pivot drillers have since made to keep their businesses alive. The story was published in City and State NY’s magazine and circulated to its print readers throughout the state, as well as published online. Additionally, the story was featured in Politico’s New York Playbook, an email newsletter sent out to readers interested in New York news.
This January, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the creation of a new office focusing specifically on the cleanup of abandoned wells. Plugging wells can reduce methane emissions and protect those living nearby from pollutants in their air and water. While our story is certainly not the only piece highlighting the need to plug abandoned and orphaned wells across the country, it is the only one we know of that focuses on New York — a state not typically associated with oil production.
New York’s oil history is often masked by nearby Pennsylvania’s reputation for drilling. Nevertheless, western New Yorkers have their own lasting love of the industry. Our piece stands out among other reporting on this topic by leaning into this complexity: How do you pay homage to an industry that has left behind tens of thousands of structures that could be releasing pollution into the air you breathe and the water you use? Our story attempts to answer this question. We go beyond the environmental danger these wells pose to explain the community’s attachment to their legacy — in a place few would expect to find it.
We performed the data analysis for this story in Python, primarily using pandas to dive into two separate datasets. We looked into the number of wells by regions, counties and towns. We created two charts and one map using R/RStudio’s tidyverse and various other mapping libraries, including rgdal, sf and tigris. The charts showed the number of unplugged wells compared to active wells in New York counties, and how long New York wells were open before being plugged.
Our analysis used two datasets, each made public by the New York Department of Energy Conservation. Our first dataset showed all abandoned and unplugged wells in the state, while a second dataset of all wells in the state since 1860 and their statuses allowed us to count and map active wells in the state.
Context about the project:
We were graduate students when we reported this piece and lacked the financial resources and time to make a reporting trip to western New York to speak in person with our sources and to visit the places discussed in the article. As a result, we relied on photos provided to us by sources.
Furthermore, the topic of abandoned wells contains nuance and uncertainty anywhere, but in New York, where methane leaks from abandoned and orphaned wells have not been calculated, that uncertainty became an everyday challenge. We hope our piece serves as an example to other writers for how to explain a real risk to readers without alarming them, and how to understand the scope of that risk without hard numbers.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
This story stemmed from an open dataset that we dove into out of curiosity. In that dataset, we made a key finding: the number of abandoned oil wells in Allegany County now far exceeds the number of active wells. By following our journalistic instinct and asking questions of this observation, we unearthed an compelling history of New York’s oil industry and its legacy — which is still top-of-mind for many people throughout Allegany County.
Through this project, we learned it is always worth exploring open data portals and running basic analysis in our spare time, as there is always a chance of uncovering reporting threads to follow in the midst of thousands of rows. Furthermore, after filtering through those numbers, rows and columns, we learned not to get bogged down in them — that the communities they affect are still the most important.