Barbara Kutchko works at the intersection of coal and gas


At a conference a few years ago, Barbara Kutchko looked with wonder and alarm at photos of eaten away cement and immediately knew what she'd be doing for the next five years. Ms. Kutchko studies well bore integrity at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which means she’s focused on making sure fluids and gasses don’t leak out of the wells they travel through. Specifically, she studies cement. Her South Park lab happens to be in the middle of one of the fastest-growing oil and gas plays in the world, and one of the oldest coal basins. The alarming pictures, she said, showed those two industries colliding. Q: What is the region’s most critical infrastructure shortcoming? A: “I’ve purposely chosen to live here because it’s got a mix of old-time quality and booming cutting edge technology. But the downside to old-time quality is old-time infrastructure. [The problem] really leans heavily to our water lines, our sewer system and our stormwater.” “That is what happens when you drill and cement wells in coal country,” Ms. Kutchko said. She understood that as coal mines are depleted and abandoned, they fill up with corrosive fluid, which will eventually break down the cement that surrounds oil and gas wells running through those mines. It's hard to know how many times this has already happened to old wells — partly because state regulators don't know where all of them are and partly because the issue hasn't been widely studied — but it's safe to assume the number is in the hundreds, if not thousands. Those might be a lost cause, Ms. Kutchko conceded, but with Pennsylvania projected to add thousands of new shale gas wells in the coming years, this was an area begging to be addressed. "I'm a very solution-oriented person," she said. "The engineer in me rears up every now and then saying, 'We can redesign a new cement! We can redesign a process for how we do this!’" Ms. Kutchko has done experiments where she re-created some of these coal mine fluids in the lab and washed them over chunks of well bore cement to measure the destruction. "Cement has been around, obviously, since Roman times," she said. "On the one hand, it's such a staple. On the other hand, the research and development that goes into cement is phenomenal." Already, oil and gas companies design their cement with certain specifications in mind, taking into account the chemistry of the ground that will host the well. Understanding how coal mine water interacts with such cement will help them design for that too, Ms. Kutchko said.


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