The project accepted by the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC) is titled Development of Operational Aerial Analytics for Remotely Measuring Reclamation Success, and seeks, over a 16-month period, to develop, validate, and automate aerial imaging and analysis methodologies for assessing oil and gas well site reclamation progress within North Dakota, specifically in the Bakken oil fields. We are grateful for the collaboration of Whiting Petroleum Corporation on this project, as this research is only possible thanks to their support and access granted to their well pads in North Dakota.

Why is North Dakota investing improvements for well pad reclamation inspections?

North Dakota leadership strives to position the State as an incubator for oil and gas technologies that protect public and environmental health and also ensure industry vitality. Since taking office in 2016, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has promoted the development of a safe and sustainable oil and gas economy. Governor Burgum advocates that this development be achieved through technological innovation instead of establishing further regulation. In line with his stated agenda, Governor Burgum signed a bill in 2019 appropriating funds to establish a beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) program for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the state, with a focus on the Bakken oil fields as the program’s first proving grounds. A BVLOS program is crucial to increase the efficiency of inspections, especially in areas where the sites (in this case, well pads) are remote and often hard to access. With a BVLOS program, inspectors using UAS can fly to and gather imagery from sites remotely, without the need to physically be present.

What are the current reclamation challenges for oil and gas operators in North Dakota?

The short answer? Lots of well sites to inspect, most in remote locations, with few people to do time-consuming in-person inspections.

North Dakota is currently home to 15,571 active wells whose sites must be reclaimed according to federal and state requirements. State law requires that any land disturbed by oil and gas activity “shall be reclaimed as close as practicable to its original condition as it existed before the construction of the well site or other disturbance.” The NDIC endeavors to annually inspect each plugged well site until reclamation standards are met. Depending on site conditions, the full reclamation process of a single site can take anywhere from three to ten years.

As of September 2019, the State counted approximately 1,500 wells in some stage of reclamation, with NDIC’s 32 field inspectors splitting annual field inspection visits to each. Inspections typically take place during a 90-day window in the late summer and early fall, and when the weather supports a site visit during that period an inspector typically spends an hour
examining the area by foot. Depending on the varying backlog of sites needing inspection, a single inspector is responsible for covering approximately 50 sites per year, many of which are dispersed across a large, discontinuous area – the Bakken oil field and its wells stretch across nearly 30,000 square miles of North Dakota:

North Dakota contains thousands of well sites in need of inspection and reclamation (map source).

Reclamation inspections are resource-intensive for the NDIC and are further complicated by the subjectivity inherent to human inspections. Boots-on-the-ground monitoring means that a site’s reclamation progress—and whether or not a site is deemed sufficiently reclaimed for clearance—is determined by visually assessing and summarizing if the site has been restored as closely as practicable to original conditions. Though field protocols and inspection forms help to control for subjectivity and variation among many different field inspectors’ assessment techniques, it is still extremely difficult to standardize human interpretations of a landscape.

How can UAS help meet the challenges faced in North Dakota?

Innovation in the industry is focused on increased efficiency, and remote sensing technologies such as UAS promote increased efficiency and improved safety. Aerial data collection and analytics can offer insights that empower the oil and gas industry and its regulatory agencies to both save money and support environmental sustainability. The widespread adoption of UAS in the oil and gas sector, however, requires two essential actions:

  1. validation of the methodology as a means of reducing costs and fulfilling compliance requirements, and
  2. automation of data processing and analytics that derive meaningful information from aerial data.

Implementing these actions will bolster the adoption and operationalization of UAS for North Dakota’s oil and gas industry and agencies. The North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC) highlights the state’s well site reclamation program as a candidate for improving efficiencies through the adoption of remote sensing technology.

What are SolSpec’s goals with the NDIC grant?

The project proposed by SolSpec and accepted by the NDIC seeks to develop, validate, and automate aerial imaging and analysis methodologies for assessing oil and gas well site reclamation progress within the state. Motivated by a desire to support North Dakota’s oil and gas industry in achieving safety and stewardship goals through innovation, SolSpec’s team seeks to empower operators and agencies with the best available technology and information needed to improve efficiencies, reduce costs, and ensure the safety and sustainability of oil and gas operations in North Dakota.

oil pump north dakota

Drone imagery and remote sensing technology will play a huge role in the organization and resource effectiveness for well site restoration in North Dakota.

Additionally, the aim for this project is also to maximize returns on investment for the State of North Dakota by addressing NDIC research priorities, including:

Data Management:
    • Consideration of which data storage architecture is optimum for data management needs.
    • Development of a trusted third-party data organization system accessible by industry and regulators.
Decision Tools
    • Consideration of how image processing can produce decision support tools from gross data.
    • Consideration of what data are visualized and provided to leaders for decision making.
    • Development of imagery analysis tools that enable cost estimates for completing site reclamation.
Cost-Effectiveness Analysis
    • Analysis of the cost-effectiveness of using remote sensing technologies for well site reclamation assessment compared to current procedures employed by industry and agencies.
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