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NETL Named to Research Consortium to Find Undocumented Orphaned Wells
A photo of an open pipe sticking out out of the ground, with an orange ribbon tied around the shaft of the pipe.

NETL will support a new research consortium funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to identify and characterize the nation’s vast number of undocumented orphaned wells (UOWs) and determine their full environmental impact with a focus on methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas.

The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) estimates there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented orphaned oil and natural gas wells in the United States. Their locations are often difficult to determine  because they were drilled before environmental laws were enacted and were never documented on public maps and records or ownership and construction records have been lost.

The BIL funding includes $30 million to establish a research consortium aimed at developing technologies and best practices that will locate these wells and determine levels of methane emissions, wellbore integrity and overall environmental impacts so they can be prioritized for plugging and remediation activities by state and federal agencies. The investment is also part of the Administration’s overall response to remediating environmental issues, addressing the legacy pollution that harms communities, creating good-paying jobs and advancing long-overdue environmental justice.

In addition to NETL, the consortium includes representatives from the IOGCC, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and four other national labs — Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Los Alamos will serve as project lead.

Over a five-year period, the UOWs research and development program will establish a collaborative framework via the consortium, develop and test new and existing technologies and processes in the field, create best practices for identification and characterization, and ultimately deploy these technologies at scale. The technological advancements under this program will help further the Administration’s emissions reduction goals to cut methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels by 2030.

The program calls for testing and demonstrating new hardware (for example, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites) to advance the state of the art in identifying and characterizing UOWs. Steps will also be taken to combine multiple data streams using machine learning to extract well location, emissions information and environmental impacts.

NETL is positioned to make important contributions. NETL has successfully completed projects to find and measure methane emissions from abandoned wells in northwestern Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and other regions. These efforts have included boots-on-the-ground activities to locate abandoned wells relying largely on information gleaned from various databases.

Other efforts, such as work completed in Oil Creek State Park near Titusville, Pennsylvania, have involved the use of drones and airborne magnetic surveys to detect the unique magnetic signatures of steel well casings and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology to identify topographic anomalies such as a flat area where drilling machinery was located, or a depression caused by the collapse at the wellhead.

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.