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NETL Harnessing Geospatial Mapping To Address Orphaned Wells
Orphaned Oil Well

By embracing the twenty-first century tools and techniques of the geospatial mapping, NETL researchers are developing new means of locating orphaned oil and gas wells so they can be plugged in the interest of public health and the environment by reducing the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

By estimates, there are hundreds of thousands of these orphaned wells across the country, many of which were installed more than a century ago, predating digital records. These undocumented orphan wells, or UOWs, are often in unknown locations and their numbers range from 120,000 to 800,000 across the country. The definition of orphaned wells can vary from state to state, but generally orphaned wells are defined as idle wells for which the operator is unknown or insolvent.

“Finding the location and characterizing these orphaned wells is critical to ensure safe and effective plugging, which will help reduce risks to the environment, climate and human health and safety,” NETL geo-data scientist Jennifer Bauer said. “Traditional means of locating wells can include citizen reports, use of historical documents, and field-based data collection using drones equipped with various sensors and instruments, such as methane detectors, to find the wells on the ground.”

However, advances in technology have allowed for additional means to be integrated with these approaches, namely geospatial data. Geospatial data includes information about the physical location of objects, features and phenomena on the Earth's surface, such as latitude, longitude, elevation and other key attributes.

“Geospatial data and analytics offer a way to analyze and understand complex spatial relationships between features on the Earth's surface,” Bauer said. “When it comes to locating orphaned wells, field-based data collection methods generate spatial data that can be analyzed and integrated with additional geospatial data sets, including geological data, production records and other spatially referenced information to identify areas where UOWs are more likely to be located.” 

Bauer’s research is leveraging geographic information systems to integrate known well records with digitized historic records, wells identified from field-based collection efforts and patterns in well development trends across the U.S. over time to help predict the most likely locations where UOWs could exist so they can be targeted for field-based sampling and verification to inform state plugging strategies. 

Geospatial data and analytics can also be applied to help reduce the overall area that must be searched with sensors or field-based crews to locate these wells. The technique also offers insights into the potential environmental challenges detection teams and plugging operations might encounter when attempting to access these UOWs, such as dense vegetation, urban areas and road access limitations, among others.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) funding enabled a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission to develop a program to reduce the impact of UOWs. The BIL provides investments to plug these UOWs, which will help communities reduce methane emissions and eliminate other environmental impacts. The benefits of NETL research into orphaned wells include remediating environmental concerns, addressing legacy pollution that harms communities, creating good-paying jobs and advancing long overdue environmental justice.

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.