The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is trolling through the state's past to help its oil and natural gas field inspectors do their jobs.
The agency is scanning thousands of old aerial photographs into the database its inspectors rely on to enforce environmental rules and respond to complaints from landowners, said Charles Lord, manager of the commission's underground injection control program.
Aided by grant funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, commission employees have been scanning old U.S. Department of Agriculture photos stored in the state library. The Oklahoma Geological Survey has contributed thousands of photos, as well.
“We've been hammering at this for a while,” Lord said.
Lord said the commission's database includes thousands of aerial photographs, some dating as far back as 1935, but there are close to 60,000 more waiting to be scanned and plotted.
“We're building a library for future use,” he said. “We'll scan until we run out of money.”
Lord said the effort has focused on counties with a lot of oil and natural gas activity.
The historical photos helped commission officials identify old wells that needed to be plugged at the site of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, he said.
Officials said the picture-enhanced database is simpler to use than the commission's historical records. Some of the agency's older records are only accurate to within 10 acres of the listed location.
Records do not even exist for some of the state's oldest wells, as permits were not required on wells drilled before the 1920s.
The commission's 58 field inspectors have laptop computers that allow them to access the database. Aerial photos can help them find lease roads or identify choke points to deploy equipment when dealing with an oil spill.
“This is really critical for them,” Lord said. “This gives them a timeline of events that happen in the field.”
He said inspectors have been working for the past five years to map the GPS location of every known well in Oklahoma.
Once that effort is complete, those locations will be integrated into the agency's database of wastewater injection wells.
Eventually, the database will be made available to the public on the commission's website, Lord said, but that likely won't be until after the current oil and gas boom is over.
We're building a library for future use. We'll scan until we run out of money.”