State ramps up detection of abandoned oil, gas wells, Dec 2020

ALBANY — A partnered state effort announced earlier this month is leveraging new drone technology and magnetic surveillance to spot abandoned oil and gas wells statewide.

To date, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has located more than 2,000 orphan wells that can continue to release methane into the atmosphere. Those well assessments have been based on landowner interviews, lease maps and on-site ground assessments.

This year, the state Energy Research and Development Authority has pledged support for existing DEC efforts and committed to invest up to $400,000 in custom drone and imaging equipment for well assessments primarily in Central and Western New York.

Named orphan wells, inactive oil and gas ground infrastructure without a known owner may be abandoned for decades before rediscovery. Some orphan wells in the state were shut down more than a century ago, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said. But methane leaking from former active sites is an ongoing concern.

The DEC reports methane is second to carbon dioxide in its overall contribution to global climate change. In New York, methane accounts for nearly 10% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to DEC data.

Unplugged orphan and abandoned wells with known owners can also house channels for oil and gas to migrate — between geologic formations, into aquifers, directly into waterways or to Earth’s surface.

“Plugging these wells is critical to reducing fugitive methane from escaping into the atmosphere and is further proof that New York is undertaking nation-leading actions to reduce greenhouse gases from sources — large and small — across the state,” Mr. Seggos said in a statement.

Specialized drones record magnetic signals generated by wells, and signal data is used to map locations for potential on-site searches. When an orphan well is identified, DEC staff assess public safety and environmental risks, often resulting in the plugging of the well. Since 2014, the department has plugged 340 abandoned wells through the New York Works Well Plugging Initiative, first budgeted by the state in 2013.

The DEC has the regulatory authority to take possession of abandoned wells and initiate plugging and replugging under Article 23 of state Environmental Conservation Law. That possession process was financially bolstered in 1982, when the state Legislature established the Oil and Gas Account to fund the plugging of orphan and other abandoned wells.

Historical oil and gas drilling was concentrated in the southern and western parts of the state, though abandoned wells have been identified as far north as Central New York and the southern edge of the north country.

NYSERDA acting President and CEO Doreen M. Harris described the drone investment as an added tool in the “arsenal” to address climate change and achieve emissions reduction goals outlined in the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, also called the Climate Act.

Among other requirements, the Climate Act mandates a 40% reduction of 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2030, and an 85% reduction by 2050.

More information about current and completed well plugging projects is posted to the DEC website.