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UW Student Looks To Transform Reclamation Monitoring

Michael Curran

A University of Wyoming Ph.D. student is looking to improve reclamation on well pads for oil and gas. Michael Curran developed a way to monitor out-of-the-way areas with drone imagery hoping to get faster and more accurate data collection at a lower cost.

Curran said there are flaws with how reclamation monitoring is currently done throughout Wyoming. In the peer-reviewed Restoration Ecology, Curran published a report as the lead author explaining current methods are disjointed, time and labor intensive, and can lead to inconsistency in data collection.

For instance, the traditional monitoring method uses a two-person team to collect data at a location in need of reclamation. Previous studies have found it takes a team an average of 99 minutes to inspect a site.

"The method proposed in this study allows one individual to capture equivalent field data in roughly one-fifth that time, suggesting a 10-fold increase in field data collection efficiency," read the study.

That's done by using a drone to fly the most efficient route over key sampling locations. Curran said that efficiency is critical when an operator might be responsible for thousands of well pads.

Traditional methods also base success of reclamation by comparing vegetation cover on one section of the well pad to one section of an adjacent reference site. Curran said that leaves too much room for failure.

"Some of those reference areas aren't homogenous. What stops someone from picking the worst reference they possibly could to set a low bar?" he said.

Curran's method instead compares 40 randomly-chosen points within the reclaimed area to 40 points in the adjacent reference area to judge its progress.

Credit Michael Curran
Aerial view of well pad trinity 3468-17-44. A 60 m buffer was placed around the well pad and 30 BAS points were selected on the interim reclamation area and reference area.

Curran said there are several additional areas where drone imagery could reduce the variability in reclamation monitoring. Permanent images mean species specific information can be gleaned later, rather than relying on one team's plant identification skill level. It also allows regulators to collect the specific information they're looking for, while also seeing additional data. The Sage Grouse Executive Order, for example, may look for different data than a BLM field office or the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

Curran explained some agencies judge success of reclamation by a certain percentage of ground cover, rather than species specific info. He said that's problematic.

"70 percent ground cover could honestly be a non-native plant. So, when I see a report that comes in and it says this site has 110 percent cover compared to the reference area and I don't know the species, I can't make the decision if this is good wildlife habitat," he explained.

Overall, Curran said the drone method could dramatically improve an energy company's ability to reclaim land and monitor their reclamation.

"Not only are they getting better results, they're getting results for faster time. For less costs, and now I can compare what seed mixes they put in the ground to the data and actually figure out what's really going on," he said.

The Pathfinder Ranch, a 638,000 acre conservation area in central Wyoming, is using Curran's technology. The ranch manages and preserves the land for sage grouse and other sensitive species. Energy companies can buy credits from the conservation bank to offset their own environmental impact.

Curran said the ranch monitors its land every year. The drone imagery helps determine the quality of certain land. If it's pristine, a credit might be worth more than land that has less ecological value. Curran said it's a perfect use of the technology.

"It wouldn't even be closely possible for us to monitor 638,000 acres using old methods. With the methods we developed, it's now something that's actually feasible for them," he said.

In the next several weeks, a peer-reviewed academic journal called Journal of Visualized Experiments plans to visit Wyoming and have Curran demonstrate his technology. The journal makes and publishes videos of scientific experiments around the world.

Curran said he and the journal are working out an exemption with the university to make the meeting possible amidst COVID-19 restrictions.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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