Posted on February 12, 2021 by Gail Port
As previously reported, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) are focused on meeting their ambitious goals to address climate change set out in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). To do so, they have undertaken a number of innovative initiatives, including, as recently announced, that they will deploy drones to help reduce climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions from aging and abandoned oil and gas infrastructure in the State.
In New York, there are a number of orphan oil and gas wells that have been abandoned for more than a century, in some cases. Leaving these wells unplugged allows methane gas to leak into the environment. Insofar as methane is, at least in its first two decades after its release, 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, this can have a significantly negative impact on the environment. The importance of plugging these orphan leaking wells is well-known. Indeed, we are likely to see federal government also pushing this initiative, as the Biden-Harris transition plan included a proposal to create “250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hard rock and uranium mines.” Plugging abandoned wells is only one step that NY is undertaking to reduce methane emissions from, among others, landfills, new and existing oil and gas infrastructure, and agricultural sources.
Until now the process to locate and plug these leaking methane emitting sources was very costly because it is difficult to spot them from the ground during land-based field surveys. It is expected that employing the use of drones to identify these wells will speed up the process and save taxpayer dollars. As noted in the NYSERDA/NYSDEC press release “[t]he 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.”
This is not the first time New York has used drones to improve its environmental efforts. In 2017, NYSDEC deployed a fleet of 22 drones to enhance the state’s environmental management, conservation and emergency response efforts. Such drones have been used for search and rescue missions, forest fire suppression, wildlife management and surveys, invasive species detection, and forest health evaluations. Specifically, in New York state alone, drones have been used to locate an oil spill in a Staten Island wetland, to map an invasive plant across 200 acres of wetlands in St. Lawrence County, to detect underground bat hibernation sites in Mineville and even to control traffic at the New York State Fair.
Saving taxpayer money is certainly a laudable goal, but doing so while taking steps to improve the environment is even better! New York should be applauded for its initiative to leverage drone technology to make leaks “drone” dry.