Data & Analytics

Thousands of Abandoned Ohio Oil and Gas Wells May Be Hidden; Drones Could Help Find Them

Airborne drones with magnetometers have worked well in trials and are ready for more widespread use, potentially revealing thousands of previously unknown wells.

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

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 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 is unclear whether they should be fixed by the state under its orphan well program.

Until now, there have not 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 past 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 ft.

“It’s a pretty big piece of equipment,” said Rob Lowe, a survey section manager at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ (ODNR) 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.

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