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Addressing the Environmental Legacy of Orphan Wells
Drs. Natalie Pekney and Dennis Donaldson shown measuring emissions of methane from an abandoned, unplugged oil well in Oil Creek State Park, Pennsylvania. The well had been located using aerial magnetic surveying techniques developed at NETL RIC.

Director’s Corner

by Brian Anderson, Ph.D.

NETL has long been at the forefront of environmental stewardship and pioneering ways to use our energy resources that also protect the environment. One aspect of these efforts is our research to find and characterize abandoned oil and gas wells, known as orphan wells, which can leak methane — a potent greenhouse gas, contaminate groundwater and create other environmental issues long after they’ve been taken out of production.

Efforts to locate orphan wells and determine their environmental impacts was identified as a priority in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and NETL researchers are working hard to achieve these goals.  

Orphan wells pose significant environmental hazards because of the methane they leak, but they present serious safety concerns as well. For example, in many instances, the earth and soil around old wells is unstable, posing a safety threat to wildlife and people walking in the area. NETL’s work has resulted in many successes so far including the Orphan Well Location Survey public tool to forward information about abandoned oil and gas wells anywhere in the United States to NETL researchers, and a story map that explores how northwestern Pennsylvania became the birthplace of the modern petroleum industry and the efforts NETL scientists have taken to address the ongoing environmental issues from the region’s oil boom more than 150 years ago. 

This month we’re featuring the Lab’s work to find and remediate the millions of abandoned wells across the United States using drones and airborne magnetic surveys and LiDAR technology. 

Stay tuned to NETL’s website and social media platforms throughout September to find out more about NETL’s work to clean up legacy oil and gas wells, including: 

  • NETL is part of a new BIL-funded research consortium that is identifying and characterizing the nation’s undocumented orphaned wells to determine their full environmental impact with a focus on methane emissions. 
  • NETL experts hit the road to develop best practices to find and characterize undocumented orphaned oil and gas wells, which can leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, contaminate groundwater and create other environmental issues after they are abandoned or taken out of production.
  • NETL has been a major player in aerial drone technology development and is working on a new program with its partners to enhance the performance of America’s energy infrastructure and improve environmental integrity.
  • NETL’s Natalie Pekney tackles energy research with an “all things connected” philosophy learned on the farm as she works searching for potential gas well leaks in remote locations and mentoring young people about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

These efforts are an important part of NETL’s broader work to drive innovation and deliver solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. Thank you for your interest in our Lab and our important work.