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Monitoring reclaimed sites can be tedious, but new digital technology can lend a hand

Monitoring reclaimed sites can be tedious, but new digital technology can lend a hand

From the The Casper Star Tribune 2020 Energy Journal series
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When oil and gas companies plug and abandon a well pad and end production on public land, the work isn’t over. The Bureau of Land Management requires that operators clean up, or reclaim, any disturbed acreage.

That means reviving soil and vegetation to its previous state, or one that can support wildlife and livestock. For years afterward, operators then must monitor the federal land to sustain restoration efforts and promote biodiversity. Companies then submit these annual monitoring reports to federal regulators.

But keeping up these monitoring efforts can prove tedious and labor intensive.

Pete Stahl is a University of Wyoming professor and director at the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center. He’s led the charge to research new methods for monitoring reclaimed land. One involving image-based sampling has proved significantly less labor intensive and can provide more accurate data than current practices.

Recently, some of the Bureau of Land Management field offices in Wyoming approved the new digital technology for use. The technology is still in its test phase, though, and not widespread.

In more traditional methods of reclamation monitoring, scientists would take several hours to evaluate a single, 50 meter-long transect, or designated portion of a field.

According to Stahl, this task would typically take two people and half a day. Statisticians analyzing the data need data from several transects to ensure the results are accurate.

“We are promoting these new photographic techniques, where you go out and walk around the site and take pictures at predetermined intervals,” Stahl explained. “We take a photograph of each one of these sites, stored in the camera, so now we have a permanent record of what we’ve seen.”

Instead of being limited to one to two sites per day under the old methods of monitoring, the digital method allows for more efficient and accurate data collection. Just a portion of the process requires monitoring companies to be out in the field. And the analysis can be conducted from a computer in comfortable conditions, he said.

The Bureau of Land Management looks to maintain diverse plant species and root out weeds like cheat grass. Proper reclamation of land also prevents erosion.

Stahl is also studying possible applications of drone technology in reclamation monitoring. These “unmanned aerial systems” can accomplish the job of capturing digital images of reclaimed well pads even faster than on-the-ground photography. What’s more, one free software program called SamplePoint can help companies quickly identify the species of various plants the images capture or determine the level of ground cover on former oil and gas fields.

But as is usually the case, there’s still more work ahead.

“There continues to always be a need for developing better methods,” Stahl pressed.

Wyoming has harsh environments to work in with short growing seasons and low precipitation rates.

“We do have a relatively high failure rate,” Stahl said. “We need to come up with better methods to avoid that and we’re always trying to improve what we do.”

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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