Drone Technology and Precision Equipment will Help Locate Abandoned Wells that Release Methane

December 14, 2020

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) today announced that New York is deploying state-of-the-art drone technology to help reduce climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions from aging and abandoned oil and gas infrastructure. DEC and NYSERDA are using high-tech aerial surveillance equipment to locate and plug abandoned, decades-old oil and gas wells that leak methane into the environment. Ton for ton, methane is many times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and is second only to carbon dioxide in its overall contribution to climate change. Representing almost 10 percent of the state’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, methane reduction is a key piece of New York’s nation-leading policies to address the risks from climate change.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said, “With our partners at NYSERDA, DEC is deploying cutting-edge drone technology to map and locate orphan oil and gas wells, some of which were abandoned more than a century ago. Plugging these wells is critical to reducing fugitive methane from escaping into the atmosphere and is further proof that New York is undertaking nation-leading actions to reduce greenhouse gases from sources – large and small – across the state.”

“Through NYSERDA’s Innovation program, we are funding technologies and clean energy solutions like these state of the art drones, that add tools to our arsenal in our efforts to combat climate change,” said Doreen M. Harris, Acting President and CEO, NYSERDA. “We are proud to work with DEC to continue to seek out every means possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we work toward Governor Cuomo’s ambitious goals outlined in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.”

To support this effort, NYSERDA will invest up to $400,000 in custom-built drone equipment and instrumentation that will be used by DEC to detect the presence of abandoned oil and gas wells primarily located in Central and Western New York that may emit methane. These regions were drilled for oil and gas starting in the 19th Century before the State’s stringent regulatory programs and often in remote locations. Although there is no definitive estimate of the total number of orphan oil and gas wells in New York State, DEC has located and assessed more than 2,000 of these wells to date by talking to local landowners, conducting research, and on-site ground searches. DEC’s work on orphan wells in New York indicates that thousands of additional abandoned wells may continue to emit methane gas into the atmosphere.

The wells are difficult to spot during land-based field surveys. DEC will target areas to search for orphaned oil and gas wells by using old lease maps, information from local landowners, and other data that suggests where wells might be present. The specialized drones will fly over the landscape with equipment that reveals magnetic signals produced by the wells at specific GPS coordinates. Signal anomalies and other data will be used to create maps that DEC will use to identify locations for on-site visits to verify the presence of orphan wells. Once an abandoned well is identified, DEC will assess its risk to public safety and the environment and take appropriate measures to reduce leaking, fugitive methane emissions as part of the New York Works Well Plugging InitiativeLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page.. Since 2014, DEC has plugged 340 orphaned oil and gas wells under this initiative.

Plugging abandoned wells is one of numerous steps Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has directed New York State to takeLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page. to reduce methane emissions from landfills, new and existing oil and gas infrastructure, and agriculture, among other sources.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a critical component of Governor Cuomo's nation-leading climate agenda, the most aggressive climate and clean energy initiative in the nation, calling for an orderly and just transition to clean energy that creates jobs and continues fostering a green economy as New York State recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Enshrined into law through the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, New York is also on a path to achieving its mandated goal of a zero-carbon emissions electricity sector by 2040, including 70 percent renewable energy generation by 2030, and to reach economy-wide carbon neutrality. It builds on New York's unprecedented ramp-up of clean energy including a $3.9 billion investment in 67 large-scale renewable projects across the state, the creation of more than 150,000 jobs in New York's clean energy sector, a commitment to develop 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035, and 1,800 percent growth in the distributed solar sector since 2011. Under Governor Cuomo's leadership, New York will build on this progress and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, while ensuring that at least 35 percent with a goal of 40 percent of the benefits of clean energy investments benefit disadvantaged communities, and advancing progress towards the state's 2025 energy efficiency target of reducing on-site energy consumption by 185 tBTUs. Earlier this year, the Governor also permanently banned hydraulic fracturing of natural gas in New York to further achieve the State’s clean energy goals.

Note: Photos of drone initiative in pilot stage attached, courtesy of NYSDEC.

Magnetic survey maps are developed based on the drone flyover information to identify locations of potential wells.jpgLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page.
DEC staff to use information from drone surveys to identify abandoned wells like the one pictured (center).jpgLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page.
A drone hauls a pack of elaborate sensing equipment during surveys of the Southern Tier earlier this year for magnetic anomalies that will be mapped to find abandoned wells.jpgLink opens in new window - close new window to return to this page.