After successful trials using drones to uncover abandoned oil and gas wells, authorities in Ohio are looking to expand their use and speed up the remediation of hundreds of sites across the state.
Ohio has approximately 1,000 sites in its orphan well inventory. There are probably “a lot more,” said Eric Vendel, chief of the oil and gas resource management division of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The hope is that the drones equipped with magnetometers could help locate wells that are not yet on the state’s radar.
Orphan wells are important because they can continue to emit methane, a health and fire hazard if not properly contained. Methane is also 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Abandoned oil and gas wells have also contaminated soils and groundwater.
Ohio Orphan Wells are a subset of the larger group of abandoned oil and gas wells, where no legally responsible owner can be found. Until the wells are identified, however, it is not clear whether they should be repaired by the state as part of its orphan well program.
Until now, there have been no good tools to systematically identify which of the quarter-million wells drilled in the state since the mid-19th century have been properly plugged or should be considered orphan wells. In many cases, wells came on the Ohio Orphan Wells list only after people reported problems. In one case, for example, a well was found under the gymnasium floor of an elementary school in Lorain County. No systematic field study has either been carried out to verify whether the recorded wells were properly plugged.
Magnetometers have been used to find wells and other geological anomalies for decades. The equipment looks for specific changes in the soil’s magnetic field that signal the presence of vertical well casing. Walking sites with equipment take time, however, this has not been done consistently statewide.
The growing popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, over the past 20 years, has paved the way for effective investigations over larger areas. The magnetometer itself looks like a white surfboard that is three feet long. It is suspended from a remote-controlled drone with a wingspan of 4 to 5 feet.
“It’s a really big piece of equipment,” said Rob Lowe, head of the investigations section in the Oil and Gas Resource Management Division of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Its section was officially created in 2016.
Work by a team from the National Energy Technology Laboratory, ODNR and others confirmed the technology’s viability at last June’s Unconventional Resource Technology conference. The team’s report showed that the drones found known wells and some that had not been reflected in official records.
In one instance, Lowe and others flew the drone over an area of about a square mile in Eagle Township of Hancock County, about 6 miles southwest of Findlay. Historical documents indicated the presence of 39 wells, Lowe said. Data from the drone’s magnetometer suggests there could be close to 90. The wells are believed to be over a century old.
“People would just put several wells close to each other,” Vendel said. The state had no gap and setback for oil and gas wells until the late 20th century. “It just led to an obscene amount of wells in a small area.”
In most non-military cases, drones can currently only fly where their operators have a clear line of sight. This poses problems for wooded areas. These include large parts of eastern Ohio, where fracking and horizontal drilling technology has led to thousands of additional oil and gas wells over the past decade. The equipment also does not perform as well in densely populated areas. Buildings and other structures can interfere with readings.
Not all wells have an original metal casing either. Steel was in short supply during World War II, so many casings were torn out, said Jason Simmerman, engineer for ODNR’s orphan well program. A remote sensing technology called LIDAR – for Light Detection and Radar – could help. It uses pulsed laser beams and other data to detect small changes in topography.
“This is going to give us a very detailed surface model of the ground,” Simmerman said. Small depressions or old roads might suggest places to take a closer look for old wells.
Expand the program
A 2018 law effectively doubled the money allocated to orphan wells from 14% to 30% of state starting taxes on oil and gas. Now, the state hopes to use the technology on a larger scale, although the timeline is not firm. The state is also seeking to speed up its pace of plugging problematic wells.
A review of ODNR data by FracTracker researchers Ted Auch and Matt Kelso revealed less than 80,000 plug dates for 238,216 oil and gas wells across the state. This left over 158,000 wells. For comparison, researchers at McGill University estimated that Ohio had 183,090 abandoned oil and gas wells in a January 2021 study of environmental science and technology.
“We just have horrible data on the location and condition of our oil and gas wells,” Auch said.
“The problem is huge,” said Scott Peterson, executive director of the Checks and Balances project. He wants to see a full statewide investigation with drones carried out as soon as possible. “The state must mobilize.”
Vendel would not guess the total number of orphan wells. He believes drone technology could help locate “hundreds, if not thousands of additional wells,” based on the results of the test work. “Regardless of these numbers, it will take a long time for us to catch up,” he said.
ODNR awarded contracts to plug 131 wells in fiscal 2020. The agency has declared a goal of plugging at least 200 wells per year for each of the next few years. If the number of orphaned wells is half the FracTracker estimate, remediation could take nearly 400 years at this rate.
Earlier this year, the ODNR called on contractors to do more hook-up work. Many companies that can do well repair work can also work on drilling sites, Vendel noted.
Greater use of magnetometers and other high-tech tools would ideally allow ODNR to plug in jobs in batches, Vendel said. For example, a high priority well plugging project could add several wells nearby, saving time and economies of scale. This includes the procurement process, site access, mobilization of equipment, etc. Larger jobs would probably be more attractive to businesses.
However, site conditions often present surprises. “We might find cannonballs on these. We might find trees growing on them, ”Vendel said. Some stream beds have also shifted over the past century and a half, so some sites may well be underwater.
An April 2021 report from the Ohio River Valley Institute estimates that a comprehensive program to plug more than 150,000 abandoned wells could create the equivalent of 8,331 jobs over a 20-year period. The report estimates the costs to plug about half a million wells in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia would likely be around $ 25 billion, but could reach $ 34 billion.
“Plugging these wells and cleaning up sites can also improve public safety, health, air quality, property values and economic development in the region,” said report author Ted Boettner. .
Advocates hope that the infrastructure plan proposed by President Joe Biden or other federal legislation will provide some money for such work. Either way, according to the Ohio River Valley Institute report, a complete cleanup would likely pay off, due to the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the ecosystem benefits and likely job creation. .
Meanwhile, critics such as FracTracker and Project Checks and Balances claim that the current Ohio departure tax levels of 10 cents per barrel of oil and 2.5 cents per thousand cubic feet of natural gas are too low.
“You take the long-term externalities and the environmental costs, and impose them on the state when it should be some kind of pay-as-you-go industry,” said Auch of FracTracker. “This is not happening.”