After suc­cess­ful tri­als using drones to dis­cov­er aban­doned oil and gas wells, Ohio author­i­ties are look­ing to expand their use and to speed up reme­di­a­tion at hun­dreds of sites across the state.

Ohio has rough­ly 1,000 sites on its orphan well inven­to­ry. There like­ly are “many more,” said Eric Vendel, chief of the Ohio Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources’ Divi­sion of Oil and Gas Resources Man­age­ment. The hope is that drones equipped with mag­ne­tome­ters could help locate wells that are not yet on the state’s radar.

Orphan wells mat­ter because they can con­tin­ue to emit methane, a health and fire risk if not prop­er­ly con­tained. Methane also is 84 times more potent as a green­house gas than car­bon diox­ide is over a 20-year time span. Aban­doned oil and gas wells have also con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soil and groundwater.

Orphan wells in Ohio are a sub­set of the larg­er group of aban­doned oil and gas wells, where no legal­ly respon­si­ble own­er can be found. Until wells are iden­ti­fied, how­ev­er, it’s unclear whether they should be fixed by the state under its orphan well program.

Until now, there haven’t been good tools to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fy which of the quar­ter-mil­lion wells drilled in the state since the mid-19th cen­tu­ry have been prop­er­ly plugged or should be deemed orphan wells. In many cas­es, wells have come onto Ohio’s orphan well list only after peo­ple report­ed prob­lems. In one case, for exam­ple, a well was found under the gym floor at a Lorain Coun­ty grade school. Nor has any sys­tem­at­ic on-the-ground sur­vey been done to check whether record­ed wells were prop­er­ly plugged.

Mag­ne­tome­ters have been used to find wells and oth­er geo­log­i­cal anom­alies for decades. The equip­ment looks for spe­cif­ic changes in the ground’s mag­net­ic field that sig­nal the pres­ence of a ver­ti­cal well cas­ing. Walk­ing sites with equip­ment is time-con­sum­ing, how­ev­er, so it hasn’t been done in a sys­tem­at­ic man­ner statewide.

The grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of remote­ly pilot­ed aer­i­al vehi­cles, or drones, with­in the last 20 years has paved the way for sur­veys to be done effi­cient­ly over larg­er areas. The mag­ne­tome­ter itself looks like a yard-long white surf­board. It hangs from a remote-con­trolled drone with a wingspan of 4 to 5 feet.

It’s a pret­ty big piece of equip­ment,” said Rob Lowe, a sur­vey sec­tion man­ag­er at the Ohio Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources’s Divi­sion of Oil and Gas Resources Man­age­ment. His sec­tion was for­mal­ly estab­lished in 2016.

Work by a team from the Nation­al Ener­gy Tech­nol­o­gy Lab­o­ra­to­ry, ODNR and oth­ers con­firmed the technology’s via­bil­i­ty at last June’s Uncon­ven­tion­al Resource Tech­nol­o­gy Con­fer­ence. The team’s report showed that the drones found known wells and some that hadn’t been reflect­ed in offi­cial records.

In one instance, Lowe and oth­ers flew the drone over an area of rough­ly one square mile in Han­cock County’s Eagle Town­ship, about 6 miles south­west of Find­lay. His­tor­i­cal records indi­cat­ed the pres­ence of 39 wells, Lowe said. Data from the drone’s mag­ne­tome­ter sug­gest­ed there could be near­ly 90. The wells would be more than a cen­tu­ry old.

Peo­ple would just put mul­ti­ple wells close to each oth­er,” Vendel said. The state didn’t have spac­ing and set­backs for oil and gas wells until the lat­ter 20th cen­tu­ry. “That just led to an obscene amount of wells in a small area.”

In most non­mil­i­tary cas­es, drones can cur­rent­ly fly only where their oper­a­tors have a clear line of sight. That presents prob­lems for forest­ed areas. Those include large parts of east­ern Ohio, where frack­ing and hor­i­zon­tal drilling tech­nol­o­gy have led to thou­sands more oil and gas wells in the last decade. The equip­ment like­wise doesn’t work as well in heav­i­ly pop­u­lat­ed areas. Build­ings and oth­er struc­tures can inter­fere with readings.

Not all wells have orig­i­nal met­al cas­ings, either. Steel was in short sup­ply dur­ing World War II, so many cas­ings were ripped out, said Jason Sim­mer­man, an engi­neer in ODNR’s orphan well pro­gram. A remote sens­ing tech­nol­o­gy called LIDAR — for LIght Detec­tion And Radar — might help. It uses pulsed laser beams and oth­er data to detect small changes in topography.

It’s going to give us a real­ly detailed sur­face mod­el of the ground,” Sim­mer­man said. Small depres­sions or old roads could sug­gest places to look more close­ly for old wells.

Expanding the program

2018 law effectively doubled the money earmarked for orphan wells by bumping it from 14% to 30% of the state’s oil and gas severance taxes. Now the state hopes to use the technology on a broader scale, although the timetable isn’t firm. The state also is looking to increase its pace for plugging problem wells.


A review of ODNR data by Frac­Track­er researchers Ted Auch and Matt Kel­so found few­er than 80,000 plug­ging dates for 238,216 oil and gas wells across the state. That left more than 158,000 wells. By com­par­i­son, McGill Uni­ver­si­ty researchers esti­mat­ed Ohio has 183,090 aban­doned oil and gas wells in a Jan­u­ary 2021 study in Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence & Technology.

We just have hor­ri­ble data on the loca­tion and con­di­tion of our oil and gas wells,” Auch said.

The prob­lem is mas­sive,” said Scott Peter­son, exec­u­tive direc­tor at the Checks and Bal­ances Project. He wants to see a com­pre­hen­sive statewide sur­vey with the drones done as soon as pos­si­ble. “The state needs to step up.”

Vendel would­n’t guess at the total num­ber of orphan wells. He thinks the drone tech­nol­o­gy could help locate “hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, more wells,” based on results from the tri­al work.  “Regard­less of those num­bers, it’s going to take us a long time to catch up,” he said.

ODNR award­ed con­tracts to plug 131 wells in fis­cal year 2020. The agency has stat­ed a goal of plug­ging at least 200 wells per year for each of the next few years. If the num­ber of orphan wells is even half the Frac­Track­er esti­mate, reme­di­a­tion could take near­ly 400 years at that pace.

Ear­li­er this year, ODNR put out a call for con­trac­tors to do more plug­ging work. Many com­pa­nies that can do reme­di­al well work also can work on drilling sites, Vendel noted.

More use of the mag­ne­tome­ters and oth­er high-tech tools would ide­al­ly let ODNR batch plug­ging jobs togeth­er, Vendel said. For exam­ple, a project to plug a high-pri­or­i­ty well could add on sev­er­al near­by wells, sav­ing time and pro­vid­ing economies of scale. That includes the con­tract­ing process, gain­ing site access, mobi­liz­ing equip­ment and so on. Larg­er jobs would like­ly be more attrac­tive for com­pa­nies to bid on.

Yet site con­di­tions often present sur­pris­es. “We could find can­non­balls down these. We could find trees shoved down them,” Vendel said. Some stream beds also have shift­ed over the last cen­tu­ry and a half, so that some sites might well be under water.

An April 2021 report from the Ohio Riv­er Val­ley Insti­tute esti­mates that a com­pre­hen­sive plug­ging pro­gram for more than 150,000 aban­doned wells could pro­vide the equiv­a­lent of 8,331 jobs over a 20-year peri­od. The report esti­mat­ed the costs to plug rough­ly half a mil­lion wells in Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia, Ken­tucky and West Vir­ginia like­ly would be around $25 bil­lion, but could go as high as $34 billion.

Plug­ging these wells and clean­ing up the sites can also improve the pub­lic safe­ty, health, air qual­i­ty, prop­er­ty val­ues and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment in the region,” said report author Ted Boettner.

Advo­cates hope Pres­i­dent Joe Biden’s pro­posed infra­struc­ture plan or oth­er fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion will pro­vide a chunk of mon­ey for such work. In any case, the Ohio Riv­er Val­ley Insti­tute report not­ed, com­pre­hen­sive clean-up prob­a­bly would be cost-effec­tive, due to the social costs of green­house gas emis­sions, as well as ecosys­tem ben­e­fits and like­ly job creation.

Mean­while, crit­ics such as Frac­Track­er and the Checks and Bal­ances Project say Ohio’s cur­rent sev­er­ance tax lev­els of 10 cents per bar­rel of oil and 2.5 cents per thou­sand cubic feet of nat­ur­al gas are too low.

You take the long-term exter­nal­i­ties and envi­ron­men­tal costs, and you force them onto the state when this should be an indus­try pay-as-you-go kind of thing,” Auch at Frac­Track­er said. “That’s not happening.”