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NETL Work to Detect Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Nets National Geographic Magazine Recognition
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NETL researchers’ detective work to locate abandoned and undocumented oil and gas wells using drone flights, electromagnetic field detectors, light detecting and ranging (LiDAR) technology and even operation of a user friendly tip line were detailed in an article in National Geographic Magazine, one of the most widely read magazines of all time.

National Geographic story topics concern science, geography, history, and world culture and is known for its distinctive appearance: a thick square-bound glossy format with a yellow rectangular border. It has a global circulation of about 6.5 million per month, including 3.5 million within the U.S. As of April 2022, its Instagram page has 216 million followers, the most of any account not belonging to an individual celebrity.

The magazine article details how NETL’s Natalie Pekney and Jim Sams, a geologist with Leidos, work with old photos and drawings combined with data gathered by remote sensing to detect undocumented oil and gas wells that are often hidden by overgrown foliage throughout the Appalachian Region. The uncapped wells often emit methane and pollute groundwater.

The article states that “there are likely hundreds of thousands of wells that are both unplugged and unregistered with governments, according to the 21 state agencies that replied to the 2020 Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission survey.”

Unplugged oil and gas wells in the United States are a source of greenhouse gas emissions – leaking 276,000 tons of methane in 2020. In Pennsylvania, alone,  expectations are to plug at least 200,000 wells to stop leakage. Methane leaks pose dangers over time. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, each unplugged well releases more than 100 kilograms annually. There are also health concerns about fluids and gases leaking into groundwater. 

The article explains how Pekney and Sams work to ferret out abounded wells using old photos, maps and newly acquired high tech data.

“When you go out into the field and attempt to find wells, it can be really overwhelming,” Pekney told National Geographic. “The better their maps, the easier the search. It increases confidence that if I walk to the coordinates that I have here, I can find a well.”

The article asserted that, “It’s impossible to plug a well no one knows to exist. That is part of why the NETL team accepts all kinds of hints as to potential well whereabouts. The lab maintains a submission portal for any tips from the public, and they’re open to other information sources, too. Earlier this year, Pekney says, the landowner of a New York property the team is examining found some maps of the area while cleaning—records older than anything the team already had.”

NETL Director Brian Anderson, Ph.D., said he is proud that the NETL work to address the abandoned well situation received such significant national exposure.

“A major reason NETL exists is to drive innovation and deliver solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future,” Anderson said. “Sometimes that means addressing problems that were created long ago. The NETL team’s work to discover hidden abandoned wells certainly falls within that category and its success is being widely recognized. That’s a good thing for the nation and for our Lab.”