Western New York residents may be surprised to discover that the area is riddled with old oil and gas wells that could possibly be leaking methane. To combat possible safety hazards and locate abandoned oil and gas infrastructure, Binghamton University geophysics researchers have teamed up with members of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

New York state is one of the oldest oil and gas producing regions in the United States. Pennsylvania, a neighboring state, is the birthplace of commercial oil production, according to the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Since this boom, thousands of wells have been abandoned.

In response, the state is deploying state-of-the-art drone technology to help reduce climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions from aging and abandoned oil and gas infrastructure.

Timothy de Smet, director of the Geophysics and Remote Sensing Laboratory at BU and a research assistant professor in the First-year Research Immersion program, Alex Nikulin, assistant professor of geological sciences and environmental studies, and Natalia Romanzo, ‘19, MS ‘20, teamed up with Nathan Graber and Charles Dietrich from the DEC and Andrii Puliaiev of the drone company UMT to publish their findings, “Successful application of drone-based aeromagnetic surveys to locate legacy oil and gas wells in Cattaraugus County, New York” in the “Journal of Applied Geophysics.”

Methane-emitting oil and gas wells present both a significant environmental concern and an impediment to economic development in regions of the United States, where such wells have been drilled prior to the introduction of regulations detailing their geographic location and condition. de Smet and Nikulin developed an automated unpiloted aerial system with remote sensors to locate methane-emitting orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells. According to de Smet, the study has important implications for the local community.

“This study will hopefully shed some light on that history in the region and maybe encourage landowners to work with the NYS-DEC to survey their land for these potential methane emitters,” de Smet wrote in an email.

After having read previous work on unexploded ordnance (UXO) detection and remediation from de Smet and Nikulin, the DEC contacted the two about possibly identifying a method to detect these wells in densely vegetated areas.

“We said we think magnetics would work, and we asked that they find us a particularly difficult test site with dense tall tree canopy and large elevation changes,” Nikulin wrote. “They knew of a site that fit our description and helped us work with the landowner of the property to conduct our experimental test flights.”

According to de Smet, there are around 35,000 unplugged wells in New York state and two million nationwide. These could be leaking methane gas. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, has a direct influence on global warming and can have indirect effects as well. As atmospheric methane levels increase, levels of tropospheric ozone (O3) also increase. Plugging abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells can have an impact to decrease the antecedents to excess ozone production.

Nikulin said the drones are being used to detect these leaks from above and plug them once identified. The drone is equipped with a magnetometer that detects magnetic anomalies in metal casting in wells that pinpoint its location.

“The drone uses magnetic sensors to locate the well casing,” Nikulin wrote. “It has applications to detecting [UXO] and applications for military historical archaeology. We are taking our talents to map battlefield archaeology at Guadalcanal this summer.”

Peter Zimbalist, a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience, was interested in learning about the varying approaches that are being studied to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Innovative approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as utilizing this drone technology, should be readily explored and considered in order for New York to ultimately reach carbon neutrality,” Zimbalist said.

The study aims to drastically increase the efficiency of detecting the orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells to reduce methane emissions. de Smet and Nikulin said New York state has spent more than $10 million since 1990 to plug the estimated unplugged wells and have only successfully plugged 424.

de Smet explained that the previous method to locate these wells required individuals to walk on foot in dense vegetation transects to identify and plug wells. Before satellite and global positioning systems (GPS), hand-drawn and oftentimes inaccurate maps were being used to report and record such sites. At this rate, it could take several thousand years to fix this problem, but the technology to automate geophysical surveys can significantly improve the speed and efficiency of locating these wells.

“They are quite difficult to see,” de Smet wrote. “You can only really do this in New York state in the early spring and late fall when there are minimal vegetation and snow cover. With our [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] we mapped 72 wells in a little over three hours. If we scale this up statewide we can hopefully make a meaningful impact on the environment.”

Chris Wen, a first-year graduate student in the dual degree sustainable communities and public administration program, witnessed a presentation on the study in a colloquium last semester and was excited to hear more about their progress.

“Every year it seems climate change becomes a more urgent problem,” Wen said. “It’s encouraging and exciting that our professors are finding innovative solutions to help address it.”