Drones are used to locate dangerous and unconnected oil wells

Binghamton, New York – There are millions of unconnected oil wells in the United States, posing a serious threat to the environment. Using drones, researchers from Binghamton University, State University of New York have developed a new method for locating these hard-to-locate and dangerous wells.

New York State has an estimated 35,000 abandoned oil or gas wells, while Pennsylvania has over 600,000 wells dating back to the early days of drilling. Overall, the United States has an estimated two million orphaned wells. These wells pose multiple risks. They release methane into the atmosphere, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, along with chemicals like benzene, carbon tetrachloride and chloroform. Through chemical reactions driven by sunlight, methane also increases the tropospheric ozone layer, which is a pollutant associated with shortness of breath.

“If all the orphan and abandoned oil and gas wells in New York state were blocked, the equivalent of 750,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide could be removed from the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of removing Buffalo cars for one year,” said Timothy De Smet, director of the Geophysics and Sensing Laboratory. Distance at Binghamton University.

There are economic reasons for blocking gas wells as well; And according to the article, these wells, which were left untapped, make it difficult to revitalize old oil fields with newer technologies such as hydraulic fracturing.

Blocking wells is the right thing to do – but first you need to find it.

In 1879, New York became the second state in the country to require wells to be plugged after their useful life. But this requirement was poorly enforced until modern regulations came into the country in 1963, and what constituted “connectivity” in those early days was crude by modern standards.

The largest concentration of unconnected wells is in the western part of the state, especially near the border with Pennsylvania and in southwestern counties such as Catarugus. Currently, employees of the state’s Department of Conversation must go out on foot to locate and block these wells, which is a very slow and ineffective process even in a small area.

Smit said that long before satellites and global positioning systems (GPS) were invented, locations were recorded on hand-drawn maps, which are often imprecise. Sometimes these maps do not report well locations, or record wells that have never been drilled. This is where the maps are at all.

“Some areas are not completely documented,” Smit said.

To find abandoned wells, researchers equipped a drone with a magnetometer that can detect magnetic anomalies in the wells’ metal casings and pinpoint their exact location.

But before the technology could be deployed to the larger field, they first needed to run multiple, smaller test trials to make sure the process worked as intended. For example, every drone has a unique magnetic and electromagnetic interference signal that must be compensated for, by Smit.

Assistant Professor of Geosciences and Environmental Studies Alex Nikulin and De Smit tested the technology as a method for detecting unexploded ordnance in Ukraine, and used advanced signal processing methods to determine the optimal parameters needed to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. In previous experiments, they also tested flight altitudes over a tree’s canopy.

They finally try out the well-detected drone at the Cattaraugus County site where 11 wells were previously mapped on foot. It worked: in just over three hours, 72 wells were located.

“We could already have been flying the drone faster and for longer missions,” Smit said, “but this was actually the first time we’ve tested this, so we were very conservative in planning the mission.”

In the long term, DEC plans to adopt this strategy to locate abandoned wells, which the agency will then block.

“Our method is by far the most reliable way to find them,” Smet said.

Then-graduate student Natalia Romanzo also contributed to this research, as well as Nathan Grabber and Charles Dietrich of the New York State Department of Environmental Protection (DEC) and Andrei Bulayev of UMT’s drone company.


The paper, “The Successful Application of Drone-based Aerial Magnetic Surveys to Locate Old Oil and Gas Wells in Kataraugus County, New York” was published in Journal of Applied Geophysics.

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