Technology

New research helps to patch up oil wells

 By Benjamin Plackett

To use an old adage, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs…

And it’s true enough in oil and gas excavation—trees have to be uprooted, well towers need to be built and soils will inevitably be disturbed. But luckily there are ways to help put some of the eggs back together again when the oil wells eventually run dry and the drilling comes to a halt. A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey, which was published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, uses innovative technology coupled with satellite imagery to help restoration scientists get oil and gas pad sites back to their ecological norm faster and more efficiently. “Between the year 2000 and 2012 there were over 11,500 square miles in north and central America that were cleared for oil and gas exploration. That’s just what happened in 12 years,” says the study author and soil scientist, Travis Nauman. Nauman looked at a subset of these pad sites spanning from Northern Utah down into Arizona and New Mexico. “It was like investigative science to figure out what has happened to these disused pads,” he says.

Landscape impacts of oil and gas development (Chris Boyer, kestrelaerial.com)

Along with a team of researchers, Nauman used a technology called Disturbance Automated Reference Toolset—or DART for short. “It’s a mapping algorithm that takes different soil, geology and topography information to use it as a context to look at the oil and gas pads,” explains Nauman. Based on this information, DART creates a profile of each mothballed oil pad. It then looks for other nearby sites with characteristics similar to the old oil pads. These nearby sites are in theory what the oil pads would have looked like if they hadn’t been disturbed by construction.

Nauman and his team then used satellite technology to scan the vegetation coverage and type of plants present at the nearby sites and at the oil pads themselves. By comparing the profiles, the scientists to figure out and quantify how far along the pads are in their ecological restoration. “The magnitude of the area that is being disturbed is pretty big and it offers us an opportunity to better understand ecological restoration,” says Nauman. One thing they unexpectedly noticed in their analysis was a connection between who owns the land and the progress of ecological restoration. “Federal government owned lands and private lands are doing the best, but state government owned lands had the poorest recovery on average,” explains Nauman, “We can’t say exactly why that variation exists, but statistically it’s there.” “There are people calling for federal land to be turned over to the state level, but our evidence shows that the states aren’t doing a great job so maybe federal land should stay in federal hands,” he continues.

Ecological restoration (ecosystemmarketplace.com)

The hope is that in the future such an approach would highlight the sites where mother nature is in need of a helping hand to get things back to normal. “It makes the restoration process more efficient and gives us a tool to help guide restoration,” says Nauman. Ecological restoration of former oil and gas pads is an important endeavor for a number of reasons. Firstly, in the Western United States, dust emissions are on the rise. This is not uniquely related to digging for oil and gas, but proper ecological restoration would help to fight against this trend, which has both visibility and public health concerns. “There are also habitats for rare and sensitive species here,” explains Nauman, “And water erosion is also an issue, which increases salt levels in nearby rivers and streams.”

Replanting the appropriate seeds and plants at the right time of the year can go a long way to help and so can adding nutrients to the soil. But resources are limited and so any research that could help focus restoration efforts will go a long way to improve restoration efforts while boosting the ecological credentials of oil companies. “These results may assist land managers in deciding what areas might be best utilized for energy development while also minimizing the long-term environmental impacts,” explains Nauman.

SEE MORE: Energy in abandoned wells by Michelle Leslie

about the author
Benjamin Plackett
I’m a journalist based in London. I report on all things science, tech, and health for a number of different publications. My work has been published by The Daily Dot, Inside Science and CNN among others. I earned my M.A. in Journalism at New York University and my B.Sci in Biology from Imperial College, London.