Hydrologic data were evaluated from four areas of western Pennsylvania to estimate the minimum depth of well surface casing needed to prevent contamination of most of the fresh ground-water resources by oil and gas wells. The areas are representative of the different types of oil and gas activities and of the ground-water hydrology of most sections of the Appalachian Plateaus Physiographic Province in western Pennsylvania. Approximate delineation of the base of the fresh ground-water system was attempted by interpreting the following hydrologic data: (1) reports of freshwater and saltwater in oil and gas well-completion reports, (2) water well-completion reports, (3) geophysical logs, and (4) chemical analyses of well water.
Because of the poor quality and scarcity of ground-water data, the altitude of the base of the fresh ground-water system in the four study areas cannot be accurately delineated. Consequently, minimum surface-casing depths for oil and gas wells cannot be estimated with confidence. Conscientious and reliable reporting of freshwater and saltwater during drilling of oil and gas wells would expand the existing data base. Reporting of field specific conductance of ground water would greatly enhance the value of the reports of ground water in oil and gas well-completion records.
Water-bearing zones in bedrock are controlled mostly by the presence of secondary openings. The vertical and horizontal discontinuity of secondary openings may be responsible, in part, for large differences in altitudes of freshwater zones noted on completion records of adjacent oil and gas wells. In upland and hilltop topographies, maximum depths of fresh ground water are reported from several hundred feet below land surface to slightly more than 1,000 feet, but the few deep reports are not substantiated by results of laboratory analyses of dissolved-solids concentrations.
Past and present drillers for shallow oil and gas wells commonly install surface casing to below the base of readily observed fresh ground water. Casing depths are selected generally to maximize drilling efficiency and to stop freshwater from entering the well and subsequently interfering with hydrocarbon recovery. The depths of surface casing generally are not selected with ground-water protection in mind. However, on the basis of existing hydrologic data, most freshwater aquifers generally are protected with current casing depths. Minimum surface-casing depths for deep gas wells are prescribed by Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources regulations and appear to be adequate to prevent ground-water contamination, in most respects, for the only study area with deep gas fields examined in Crawford County.