Nathan Graber knows it won't be easy.

"We're basically looking for a needle in a haystack," he says.

Graber's leading a new state DEC effort to map something of which New York has no sense of the scope: abandoned, discarded, and capped oil and natural gas wells. Environmentalists call them "orphaned wells," or "ghost wells."

What You Need To Know

  • NYS DEC to launch drone searches for abandoned oil and gas wells across the state

  • Drones will carry magnetometers able to see well signatures 20 to 30 feet below ground

  • Key to the program's success will be property owners consent for the searches

They are more easily tripped over by a hiker or landowner than registered in any official state document. In many cases, they are needles of neglect.

"In a lot of cases, these wells, they may have been plugged in the past, we don't know," said Graber. "That's the problem with these. Even if they were plugged, they still can present a potential risk to the environment."

Especially to water and atmospheric conditions. Many of these wells, identified only by a minimal extension of pipe from the ground, or concrete-poured cap, can leak methane.

New York will begin searching for them for the first time using drones this spring. The effort begins where oil was first discovered by settlers to the continent, in Allegany County.

Drones will carry magnetometers to search 20-30 feet below ground for a well's subterranean signatures. SUNY institutions have used the instruments to identify unexploded ordinances in other countries.

A DEC map shows that a few hundred "orphaned wells" dot upstate, but Graber believes there may have been hundreds more drilled well before New York began formal regulation.

Searches will scan 100-300 acres at time with the first scheduled for Oswego and Allegany counties.

Graber believes the success of the program may depend on landowners opening their property to the drone crews.

"If they give us permission to come out, then great. That's what we're trying to do. But we don't just barge into people's property and look for wells,” he said.

Property owners can register with the state to unearth these ghosts from New York's industrial past at They can also call the DEC at (518) 402-8056.

"Ultimately, we'd like to find all of the wells in the state," said Graber.