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New Method for Locating Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells is Tested in New York State

Guest blog by Natalia N. Romanzo, graduate student, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY

 

Innovations in geospatial remote sensing technology developed by a research team at Binghamton University’s Geophysics and Remote Sensing Laboratory allow for improved detection of unplugged oil and gas wells. Implementing this technology would allow responsible agencies to more efficiently locate, and then plug, the 30,000+ undocumented oil and gas wells in New York State. Plugging these wells would help residents to assess risks of any wells on or near their property, improve air quality, and keep New York State on track to reaching its greenhouse gas emissions targets.

 

Dangers of Unplugged Orphan Oil and Gas Wells

In 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that nationwide, there were 3.11 million abandoned oil and gas wells. Sixty-nine percent — or 2.15 million — of these wells are not even plugged. Many were drilled prior to the existence of state regulatory programs, subsequently abandoned by their original owners or operators over a century ago, and then left unplugged or poorly plugged. State and federal regulators are in the process of plugging these wells, but the process is slow; many are still unplugged today.

Unplugged or incorrectly plugged wells can leak methane into drinking water and the atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, methane in the atmosphere is more than 80 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, and, as such, becomes a driving mechanism of global warming. Methane has come under scrutiny by climate scientists and other concerned with the relationship between unconventional gas drilling (“fracking”) and the climate crisis.

Anthropogenic methane is the cause of a quarter of today’s global warming, and the oil and gas industry is a leading source of these emissions. Every year, oil and gas companies release an estimated 75 million metric tons of methane globally, an amount of gas sufficient to provide electricity for all of Africa twice over. Unplugged wells are often high emitters contributing to this energy waste. A study of almost 140 wells in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Ohio found that more than 40% of unplugged wells leak methane, compared to less than 1% of plugged wells.

Unplugged, incorrectly plugged, as well as active wells can all leak methane. Methane-leaking wells are especially problematic when their locations are undocumented or unknown. Until they are located, undocumented wells that remain unplugged can continue to emit methane into the atmosphere and into drinking water. For example, in Pennsylvania, methane was detected in water samples at average concentrations six times higher in homes less than one kilometer from oil and gas wells. The potential negative impact of unplugged orphan oil and gas wells makes this a pressing environmental concern.

Of the more than 3 million problematic oil and gas wells nationwide, over 35,000 unplugged oil and gas wells may exist in New York State alone. Unplugged or improperly plugged wells that leak methane can pose direct threats to New York State residents, especially for people living nearby to these wells. Many New York State residents are unaware that they have an unplugged well on their property, and could be at risk of potential exposure to uncontrolled releases of gas or fluids from unplugged orphan wells. In one case in Rushville, New York, two dozen unplugged wells emitted methane at explosive levels. An unplugged well in Rome, New York discharged brine to the land surface for decade at a rate of 5 gallons per minute, killing an acre of wetland vegetation. If these wells had been located and assessed, property owners would be better informed and safer.

In addition to directly harming New York State residents and contributing to climate change, unplugged orphan wells also impact New York State’s ability to reach its 2030 emissions targets. New York State recently set ambitious statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets through the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act to lower emissions by 85% by 2050. However, New York State has only reduced emissions 8% from 1990-2015 levels. If New York State is to reach its emissions targets, it must continue and improve its efforts to locate, assess, and ultimately plug all its orphan oil and gas wells.

Inaccurate Records and Inefficient Detection Methods

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is responsible for task of mitigating and preventing damage caused by oil and gas wells. Unfortunately, flaws in record keeping have made it difficult to locate undocumented wells. The DEC began record keeping of oil and gas wells in 1983 and took on regulatory authority over wells drilled in the state after 1983. There are strict rules and regulations for plugging wells drilled after 1983, and wells drilled prior to 1983 must comply with applicable regulations. Nevertheless, many older wells are still unaccounted for. In their external review in 1994, staff estimated that 61,000 wells had been developed prior to 1983. However, the agency only has records on about 30,000 of them. Because accurate records do not exist for old wells, it is difficult to monitor, and even locate, them.

Click here for a full-screen view of FracTracker Alliance’s map of all known wells in New York State (data current as of October 2018, to be updated soon).

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Despite inaccurate records, the DEC does try to locate, assess, and plug old wells using maps created by drilling companies in the late 1800s. A section of one such map can be seen in Figure 1. This map shows proposed oil and gas drilling sites in Cattaraugus County, New York in the late 1800s. It has been georeferenced using ArcGIS  mapping software to assign present day coordinates to hand drawn features.

Figure 1. Georeferenced Lease Map, Cattaraugus County, New York

Unfortunately, these maps are not entirely reliable. Some wells may be incorrectly documented on a map as drilled when, in fact, they were merely proposed but never drilled; some wells may have been drilled but never marked on a map. Other wells may have been both marked on a map and drilled, but due to inaccurate survey technologies of the past, the location on the ground is incorrect. As a result, DEC staff are left searching on foot for wells that may or may not be there. Working with limited equipment, in dense brush, and over uneven terrain make the task of finding the abandoned wells even more problematic.

These traditional methods of detection, which include referencing lease maps and searching for wells in the field, are not only time consuming, but are also costly. Using traditional methods of well detection, between 1988 and 2009, the United States Bureau of Land Management spent $3.8 million and only successfully reclaimed 295 well sites. It is clear that on both the federal and state levels, traditional well detecting methods are expensive, cumbersome, and inefficient.

Drones Pave the Way for Oil and Gas Well Detection

Recent improvements in geospatial remote sensing technology have opened opportunities for more efficient well detection. Previously, the battery life of drones and the weight of magnetometers prevented the two technologies from being used together to locate oil and gas wells. Furthermore, because drones must be flown high enough to clear vegetative canopies, methane sensors attached to drones are too far away from the source to accurately detect the location of the well. Due to these technological barriers, the DEC and other environmental departments and agencies have had to rely on inefficient, traditional methods of well detection described above.

At Binghamton University’s Geophysics and Remote Sensing Laboratory, a research team headed by Professors Timothy de Smet and Alex Nikulin, along with graduate student Natalia Romanzo, and undergraduate students Samantha Wong, Judy Li, and Ethan Penner, is taking on the task of developing a more efficient method to locate oil and gas wells. The Binghamton University research team deployed drones equipped with magnetometers to demonstrate that a high-resolution, low-altitude magnetic survey can successfully locate unmarked well sites.

Oil and gas wells have a characteristic magnetic signal that is generated by vertical metal piping fixed in the ground, making them identifiable in a magnetic survey.

Figure 2a. Oil and Gas Well Detected at 40m AGL showing LiDAR Total Horizontal Derivative of the site.

The magnetic signal generated by a well is shown in red in Figure 2b. At 40 meters above ground level (AGL), tree canopies are cleared, while the magnetic anomaly of the well is distinguishable. This drone-based magnetometer method has shown promising results.

Figure 2b. Magnetic Anomaly of an Oil and Gas Well Detected at 40m AGL, showing total magnetic intensity of the site.

To further test remote sensing techniques, the Binghamton University research team worked with Charles Dietrich and Nathan Graber from the NYS DEC to compare the efficiency of different survey methods. Currently, researchers are conducting fieldwork to compare the efficiency of traditional methods of well detection, well detection via a magnetic ground survey, and well detection via a drone-based magnetic survey. This research is showing that using drones equipped with magnetometers is a more efficient way to survey a wide area where wells may be present.

Remote sensing techniques can allow the DEC to more efficiently locate, and then plug, the 30,000+ undocumented oil and gas wells in New York State. Using this new method of well detection, the DEC will be able to inform residents who have unplugged wells on their property, assess the risks of the wells, and plug harmful wells. Residents with wells on or near their property will benefit directly. In addition, and more broadly, New Yorkers will enjoy improved air quality while New York State will be more on track to reaching its emissions targets.

FracTracker thanks Natalia Romanzo for her guest blog contribution. We feel that this technology holds promise for communities impacted by drilling across the nation.

For answers to specific questions about the project, you can email Natalia directly at nromanz1@binghamton.edu.

 

Abandoned Wells in Pennsylvania: We’re Not Doing Enough

By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern 

Fracking in Pennsylvania: The History

When driving through Pennsylvania, you can see what an impact oil and gas has had on the state. Towns like Oil City and Petrolia speak to the oil and gas industry’s long standing history here. In more recent history, Pennsylvania has been a prime fracking location because of the presence of the Marcellus shale formation that covers over half of the state. With more unconventional oil and gas exploration came impacts to communities, who were denied their right to “clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment” as defined by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Hydraulically fractured wells are often no longer profitable after just one stimulation, after which they are abandoned. Improperly abandoned wells wreak havoc on our communities and our environment. The number of improperly abandoned wells has been increasing over time as companies go bankrupt transfer wells to other companies. These wells can easily go undetected because they are often buried underground, leaving no traces at the surface level.

These unplugged abandoned wells are underneath our homes, our schools, and in our own backyards, negatively impacting our health and the environment.

FracTracker’s West Coast Coordinator Kyle Ferrar shows how abandoned wells are hiding all around us in his investigation of downtown Los Angeles. He used an infrared camera to visualize the plumes of methane and other volatile organic compounds spewing out of abandoned wells in the middle of streets.

 

Dangers of unplugged abandoned wells

The plugging process consists of filling the well with cement, ensuring that nothing leaks from the well into the surrounding ecosystem. Without that measure in place, the chemical-water solution used to frack the underlying shale, as well as any oil or natural gas still left in the well, can very easily seep into nearby aquifers or into close by waterways. Wells that are not plugged or are not plugged properly leak into nearby aquifers, releasing methane and other volatile organic compounds are continually released from the well into the atmosphere as well. This leakage into the atmosphere and ground water can have disastrous effects on our ecosystem and health.

Abandoned wells are also a dangerous threat because many of their locations are unknown. These wells can ruin the structural integrity of buildings and homes that are unknowingly built on top of them. The methane leaking out of the well is colorless and odorless, meaning that it can easily build-up in homes or elsewhere and cause explosions.

 Bankruptcy and Bonds

When an oil and gas company drills a well, they are responsible for making sure that it is plugged properly at the end of the well’s life. This is the case even if the company goes bankrupt. To do this, Pennsylvania government requires that the company put up a bond that is set aside to plug the well properly. This ensures that if the company does go bankrupt, the necessary funds are already set aside to plug the well. Normally, this bond takes the shape of a blanket bond amount of $25,000 which is intended to cover the total expenses that would be incurred in plugging all of the wells a company has in the state. Depending on the number of wells a company possesses, this could mean very little actually being set aside for each individual well.

A shallow well can cost between $8,000 to $10,000 plus, and up to $50,000 or more depending on how difficult it is to plug. In the case of Pennsylvania’s top oil and gas holder Diversified Gas & Oil PLC and its recently acquired. Company Alliance Petroleum Corp, this bond sets aside just $2 per well. With most other companies holding no more than 5,700 wells, this sets aside $4.40 per well. Where the bond amounts fall short in accounting for the cost to plug the hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells across the state, the rest of the cost falls at the feet of taxpayers.

The New Contract

The state government has started to recognize the severity of the situation as they are confronted with a mountain of costs in plugging these wells. To start to mitigate this, the government has recently settled with Diversified Gas & Oil. The company has been ordered to properly plug 1,058 abandoned wells. To do this they have signed on to a $7 million bond with $20,000 to $30,000 bonds for each additional abandoned or non-producing well that is acquired.

Although it is a great start to ensure that these two major companies have the proper bonding amount moving forward, this does not apply to all companies, whose likelihood of going bankrupt puts a lot of financial pressure on Pennsylvanian citizens. Also, these 1,058 wells are only the tip of the iceberg, with the DEP estimating that there are between 100,000 and 560,000 total abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, many of which still have unknown locations.

In the 2017 Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Report, it is stated that: “Currently, more abandoned wells are being added to the state’s inventory than are being addressed through permanent plugging through state-issued contracts. Since 2015, DEP has been able to fund the plugging of oil and gas wells only in emergency situations and/or when residents must be temporarily evacuated from their homes due to imminent threats that legacy wells pose when well integrity is compromised.” They continue on by stating that, considering the historic operating costs and acknowledging the sheer number of wells, properly addressing es the abandoned wells will cost between $150 million and $3.7 billion. The $150 million is an estimation based on the scenario that no more historic legacy wells are discovered, and the $3.7 billion is based on if 200,000 more are found, a more likely scenario.

The funding to cover the costs of plugging these abandoned wells comes from surcharges of $150 and $200 established by the 1984 Oil and Gas Act for each oil well permit and gas well permit. The DEP has received fewer permits in recent years meaning that there are very little funds to resolve this issue. This means that eventually this public health and environmental burden will have to fall at the feet of the taxpayers.

This makes the state’s step in the right direction look more like a tip toe. With no real, substantial plans to locate and address the large amount of wells across the state, the government is putting their people at risk because these abandoned wells are not harmless.

Washington County Case study

 Washington County can be used as a window into the abandoned well crisis in Pennsylvania. This county sits in the middle of the Marcellus Shale formation, making it a key site for unconventional oil and gas development. According to the DEP, there are 215 abandoned, orphaned wells in Washington county, but realistically we know that there are likely many  more than that.

The Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA) has derived a dataset from historical sources to determine the possible locations of other abandoned wells. These historical documents include the WPA, Ksheet, and Hsheet collections. This data set highlights over 6,000 locations where an abandoned oil and gas well could be located.

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This is a testament to how many of these wells exist without our knowledge. If this difference in DEP records and possible wells is this great in Washington County, then we face the enormous potential problem of tens of thousands of additional abandoned wells that need to be resolved. The effects of these wells are real and they must be identified quickly.

These are some of the physical effects of abandoned wells:

 

Fig 1. A Collapsed Well Opening – A Physical Hazard (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

Fig. 2. Well Spouting Acid Water. Well later plugged by DEP (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

Fig. 3. Oil Seepage (photo credit:(photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

 

Fig. 4. Abandoned Well and Storage Tank (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

Pennsylvania is facing a mountain of an issue with decades of work ahead. The state must act quickly to ensure the health and protection of our people and our environment, which entails taking active steps to secure an adequate budget to resolve this issue. To start, the state should identify where all of the wells are, set up a financial plan that puts the cost of the plugging process for these wells back onto the oil and gas companies, and begin to take active measures to plug the wells quickly and efficiently.