abandoned oil well
This abandoned oil well, dating back to the early 1900s, was finally plugged in September 2020. Credit: Ohio Department of Natural Resources

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After successful trials using drones to discover abandoned oil and gas wells, Ohio authorities are looking to expand their use and to speed up remediation at hundreds of sites across the state.

Ohio has roughly 1,000 sites on its orphan well inventory. There likely are “many more,” said Eric Vendel, chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. The hope is that drones equipped with magnetometers could help locate wells that are not yet on the state’s radar.

Orphan wells matter because they can continue to emit methane, a health and fire risk if not properly contained. Methane also is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is over a 20-year time span. Abandoned oil and gas wells have also contaminated soil and groundwater.

Orphan wells in Ohio are a subset of the larger group of abandoned oil and gas wells, where no legally responsible owner can be found. Until wells are identified, however, it’s unclear whether they should be fixed by the state under its orphan well program.

Workers plug a natural gas well at an elementary school in Lorain, Ohio in 2015. The recently constructed school had to be evacuated when the well, located underneath the gym floor, began leaking gas. Credit: Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Until now, there haven’t been 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 deemed orphan wells. In many cases, wells have come onto Ohio’s orphan well list only after people reported problems. In one case, for example, a well was found under the gym floor at a Lorain County grade school. Nor has any systematic on-the-ground survey been done to check whether 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 ground’s magnetic field that signal the presence of a vertical well casing. Walking sites with equipment is time-consuming, however, so it hasn’t been done in a systematic manner statewide.  

The growing popularity of remotely piloted aerial vehicles, or drones, within the last 20 years has paved the way for surveys to be done efficiently over larger areas. The magnetometer itself looks like a yard-long white surfboard. It hangs from a remote-controlled drone with a wingspan of 4 to 5 feet. 

“It’s a pretty big piece of equipment,” said Rob Lowe, a survey section manager at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. His section was formally established 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 hadn’t been reflected in official records.

An aerial survey identified dozens of leaking wells in Hancock County, Ohio. Credit: Ohio Department of Natural Resources

In one instance, Lowe and others flew the drone over an area of roughly one square mile in Hancock County’s Eagle Township, about 6 miles southwest of Findlay. Historical records indicated the presence of 39 wells, Lowe said. Data from the drone’s magnetometer suggested there could be nearly 90. The wells would be more than a century old.

“People would just put multiple wells close to each other,” Vendel said. The state didn’t have spacing and setbacks for oil and gas wells until the latter 20th century. “That just led to an obscene amount of wells in a small area.”

In most nonmilitary cases, drones can currently fly only where their operators have a clear line of sight. That presents problems for forested areas. Those include large parts of eastern Ohio, where fracking and horizontal drilling technology have led to thousands more oil and gas wells in the last decade. The equipment likewise doesn’t work as well in heavily populated areas. Buildings and other structures can interfere with readings.

Not all wells have original metal casings, either. Steel was in short supply during World War II, so many casings were ripped out, said Jason Simmerman, an engineer in ODNR’s orphan well program. A remote sensing technology called LIDAR — for LIght Detection And Radar — might help. It uses pulsed laser beams and other data to detect small changes in topography.

“It’s going to give us a really detailed surface model of the ground,” Simmerman said. Small depressions or old roads could suggest places to look more closely for old wells.

Expanding the program

A 2018 law effectively doubled the money earmarked for orphan wells by bumping it from 14% to 30% of the state’s oil and gas severance taxes. Now the state hopes to use the technology on a broader scale, although the timetable isn’t firm. The state also is looking to increase its pace for plugging problem wells.

A review of ODNR data by FracTracker researchers Ted Auch and Matt Kelso found fewer than 80,000 plugging dates for 238,216 oil and gas wells across the state. That left more than 158,000 wells. By comparison, McGill University researchers estimated Ohio has 183,090 abandoned oil and gas wells in a January 2021 study in Environmental Science & Technology.

“We just have horrible data on the location and condition of our oil and gas wells,” Auch said.

“The problem is massive,” said Scott Peterson, executive director at the Checks and Balances Project. He wants to see a comprehensive statewide survey with the drones done as soon as possible. “The state needs to step up.”

Workers performed an emergency plugging of a gas well in the village of Coal Grove, Ohio, in March 2020 after neighbors reported a natural gas odor.

Vendel wouldn’t guess at the total number of orphan wells. He thinks the drone technology could help locate “hundreds, if not thousands, more wells,” based on results from the trial work. “Regardless of those numbers, it’s going to take us a long time to catch up,” he said.

ODNR awarded contracts to plug 131 wells in fiscal year 2020. The agency has stated a goal of plugging at least 200 wells per year for each of the next few years. If the number of orphan wells is even half the FracTracker estimate, remediation could take nearly 400 years at that pace.

Earlier this year, ODNR put out a call for contractors to do more plugging work. Many companies that can do remedial well work also can work on drilling sites, Vendel noted. 

More use of the magnetometers and other high-tech tools would ideally let ODNR batch plugging jobs together, Vendel said. For example, a project to plug a high-priority well could add on several nearby wells, saving time and providing economies of scale. That includes the contracting process, gaining site access, mobilizing equipment and so on. Larger jobs would likely be more attractive for companies to bid on. 

Yet site conditions often present surprises. “We could find cannonballs down these. We could find trees shoved down them,” Vendel said. Some stream beds also have shifted over the last century and a half, so that some sites might well be under water.

An April 2021 report from the Ohio River Valley Institute estimates that a comprehensive plugging program for more than 150,000 abandoned wells could provide the equivalent of 8,331 jobs over a 20-year period. The report estimated the costs to plug roughly half a million wells in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia likely would be around $25 billion, but could go as high as $34 billion.

“Plugging these wells and cleaning up the sites can also improve the public safety, health, air quality, property values and economic development in the region,” said report author Ted Boettner.

Advocates hope President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan or other federal legislation will provide a chunk of money for such work. In any case, the Ohio River Valley Institute report noted, comprehensive clean-up probably would be cost-effective, due to the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as ecosystem benefits and likely job creation.

Meanwhile, critics such as FracTracker and the Checks and Balances Project say Ohio’s current severance 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 environmental costs, and you force them onto the state when this should be an industry pay-as-you-go kind of thing,” Auch at FracTracker said. “That’s not happening.”

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.