To find old methane-leaking oil wells, researchers look to history
Old drawings, photos, and maps, often publicly available, give researchers the same perspective that 18th century prospectors had.
Published September 9, 2022
11 min read
Natalie Pekney and Jim Sams are hunting across the United States for a treasure they’d rather didn’t exist: undocumented oil and gas wells, some so old that foliage has overgrown them and hidden the environmental hazards they pose. The team, like any good explorer, needs reliable maps. They are constructing maps partly with historical documents.
Old photos and drawings, paired with new data gathered by remote sensing, help Pekney, an engineer with the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), and Sams, a geologist with the information technology company Leidos, navigate as if they were some of the country’s earliest oil and gas prospectors themselves. Pekney states, “It can be overwhelming to go out into the field and try to find wells. The more detailed their maps are, the easier it is to search. “It increases confidence that if I walk to the coordinates that I have here, I can find a well.”
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. The unsealed wells they and their team from the NETL find, which still could be emitting the potent greenhouse gas methane or threatening to pollute groundwater, help create more complete datasets for state environmental agencies deciding which wells are causing the most damage, and which to seal up first.
Pekney and Sams belong to one of many government and university research teams helping to ferret out these abandoned wells. Methane leaks into the atmosphere are dangerous over time, and the EPA estimates that each unplugged well releases over 100 kilograms annually. A more immediate health concern are the fluids and gasses that could migrate into groundwater deposits, says Mary Kang, a civil engineer at McGill University. From 1983 to 2007, the Ohio Division of Mineral Resources Management identified 41 instances of groundwater contamination from leaking orphaned wells, for example, while the Railroad Commission of Texas confirmed 30 similar issues between 1993 and 2008.
“I would say groundwater is probably something I’d be concerned about more,” Kang says. “We don’t know enough about groundwater impacts and the extent of methane emitted from these wells. “
The forgotten wells came to national attention early this year when President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill set aside $1. 15 billion for states to properly seal them.
How to find a hidden well
For the first century of oil and gas drilling in the U.S., the practice of well plugging essentially didn’t exist. “The United States had no environmental regulatory structure. Ron Bishop, a hazardous material specialist at SUNY Oneonta, says that it simply wasn’t possible. New York, for example, in 1879 passed the first legislation requiring wells to be plugged, but the law had no enforcement, save an amendment three years later that gave citizen whistleblowers a cut of the levied fine. If a drilling team did comply–and that was a big if–they might shove a tree trunk or bowling ball down the shaft, far from an effective seal for leaking gasses.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that cement well plugs became common. New York didn’t give any state agencies the authority, staff, and funds needed to track industry growth until the early 1970s with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Bishop says.
Research has yet to draw conclusions about how the age of a well influences how much methane it releases. The limited data available shows conflicting results, says Kang, who has assessed which well qualities lead to more methane emissions. A well could also be a high-methane emitter but that doesn’t mean it has any impact on groundwater. Kang states that a well could emit zero methane, but it could be very harmful to groundwater. She says that plugged wells release less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than unplugged ones.
If states want to know which wells pose the largest threats to the environment, they need to know how many drillings exist in the first place. Pekney and Sams make maps of the study area to determine this. This multi-step process aims to uncover as many clues possible about unplugged or forgotten wells. The team first gathers all the maps that are currently available from federal and state agencies for the study area. The United States Geological Survey topographic maps mark terrain, roads, and paths, for example, while counties or townships can offer recent maps of property lines.
Next, the NETL team flies drones outfitted with special survey equipment over the study area to make its own maps of the region. An electromagnetic field detector detects metal well remnants and shows them as lumps on a landscape. To find wells fitted with wood pipes–used at the very beginnings of the oil and gas industry in the early 1800s–or those missing their metal bits, the NETL team scans for tell-tale depressions. Every divot beneath the greenery is highlighted by a LiDAR survey. This surveys the ground with beams and records the time it takes for each emission of light to bounce back to its device. An indentation shaped like a lollipop might indicate a well that has collapsed and the well pad that is long and narrow.
Finally, Sams searches for old maps, photos, and illustrations relevant to the area.
Some reliable resources for older materials, Sams finds, are the archives assembled by federal documentation programs. The United States Geological Survey, for example, has digitized its collection of topographical maps it’s been creating since 1884. And in the 1930s, the United States Department of Agriculture began building its own vault of birdseye property photos, sometimes capturing well infrastructure and service roads. A simple internet search helps, too. That’s how Sams came across the David Rumsey Map Collection and an assortment of maps at the Library of Congress, which also show property lines, buildings, paths, and more from different eras.
When the collecting and surveying is done, Peckney and Sams insert all the maps they have accumulated into a software program that stacks everything like a sandwich, allowing the data to be viewed as if from above. Any map elements made visible by the team in the software will appear on top or alongside each other as if they were being transposed into one document.
Since part of the data trove includes photos that capture infrastructure on the ground, Sams will rely on man-made features in the images, like a road intersection, to orient the pictures correctly on today’s landscape. He can then assign modern-day geographical coordinates to items of particular interest that might not be visible on a hike. You might find old service roads in maps or photos that were taken before the forest had covered the ruts. Pekney and Sams often followed old roads to rusted-out well pipes thanks to LiDAR surveys.
A rare trove of photos
Nowhere have historical records guided the pair better than in Oil Creek State Park. In 1859, that patch of northwestern Pennsylvania is where Edwin Drake became the first prospector to tap a pipe deep enough into the ground to release gushes of oil. His success inspired a flurry of copycats. A local history written around that time claimed that in a four-month period in 1861, prospectors dug 665 new oil wells into the area.
In their desperation to exploit new oil pockets, those looking to get rich left tree trunks jutting out of the soil amongst rigs and ad-hoc housing. John Mather is the one who can show us the devastation today. The photographer dragged his equipment out to boomtowns in northwest Pennsylvania in 1860, capturing workers and the changed landscape. Sams says John Mather was taking photos at Oil Creek. “That was quite amazing work that he did.”
While on a project identifying wells in the area, Sams got in touch with the Drake Well Museum, which shared its archives with the team, including the Mather photos. “I wonder if he realized how helpful that would be 100 some years later,” Sams says, “that we could actually see oil derricks on a hillside and go and search those out from his photographs.”
Hiking through former drilling hotspots and seeing remnants for themselves is how Pekney and Sams verify that suspected wells exist. With their layered maps and Mather’s photos, the NETL team confirmed 245 wells in and around Oil Creek State Park. Testing for methane at 210 of them showed 21 were releasing the gas. Concrete plugs were missing from all but one of them.
Pekney and Sams know the trove of information available at the site of the first oil boom in the country is rare. They’re also deploying other historical documents to help them find more information. The team is currently or soon will be conducting similar surveys in Kentucky, New York, and other states. Colleagues at other national labs are set to search for wells elsewhere in the country, as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside $30 million for a research consortium dedicated to the effort.
Some people might choose to deploy limited plugging funds differently and put a lower priority on identifying every well in the landscape. Bishop says, “I would probably do something about wells that are known to be there.” Pekney believes that if the national laboratory team streamlines their protocol, state environmental agencies could adopt the process to identify wells faster and create a list of those that are most important to plug.
No matter the management strategy, it’s impossible to plug a well no one knows to exist. The NETL team welcomes any hint as to the location of potential wells. The lab maintains a submission portal for any tips from the public, and they’re open to other information sources, too. Pekney reports that earlier this year, the New York landowner who is being surveyed found maps of the area during cleaning–records that were older than any the team had.
“Maybe those maps are turned into various state agencies,” Pekney says, “But I imagine homeowners with really old properties that go back 100 years–maybe they have some of this inf
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.