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NETL Environmental Engineer Wins Prestigious Flemming Award
Natalie Pekney, Recipient of a 2022 Arthur S. Fleming Award

NETL’s Natalie Pekney, Ph.D., an environmental engineer leading research to mitigate methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells, has been named the recipient of a 2022 Arthur S. Flemming Award, one of the nation’s top honors presented to federal employees.

Established in 1948, the Flemming Awards recognize outstanding early to mid-career federal employees who go beyond what is expected and whose federal government achievements have a broad, positive impact on society.

Previous winners have included Neil Armstrong, Elizabeth Dole and Anthony Fauci. NETL’s David Miller, chief research officer, and Paul Jablonski, a metallurgist who was instrumental in the Lab’s development of a revolutionary coronary stent, received Flemming Awards in 2014 and 2012, respectively.

“Natalie is truly deserving of this prestigious recognition,” said NETL Director Brian J. Anderson. “Her leadership abilities, technical expertise and talent for innovation are addressing a pervasive climate change issue — the leakage of methane from hundreds of thousands of undocumented orphaned and abandoned wells across the United States.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane is the second most abundant anthropogenic greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide (CO2). Although its lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than CO2, methane is more than 25 times as potent as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

At NETL, Pekney leads a program that uses a range of innovative technologies to find orphaned wells, many of which were abandoned before ownership records were kept or are hidden by debris and vegetation, and other oil and gas infrastructure that can leak significant amounts of methane.

Pekney has been instrumental in the application of aerial techniques to advance her work. NETL has used magnetometers on helicopters to accurately search large areas for the presence of undocumented wells. When small, lightweight magnetometers became available in 2015, NETL transitioned from helicopter to drone magnetic surveys, which lowered the cost of well-location surveys.

Because a magnetic survey relies on an intact metal casing, those tools are not effective for detecting wells that were constructed with wooden casings or have had the casing removed. In some instances, these wells may still have surface indications such as a flat area where drilling machinery was located or a depression caused by the collapse at the wellhead. Pekney and her colleagues have advanced the use of light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology to identify these topographic anomalies and identify well locations.

Currently, Pekney and her team are taking another step forward and exploring the use of methane sensors on drones to detect emissions from abandoned wells.

Pekney’s projects are key to achieving environmental remediation goals in President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which established a $4.7 billion program to plug orphaned oil and gas wells. “But the first step in the process is finding the wells and determining how much methane they emit. Once state environmental programs have that information, they can then address those ‘super-emitters’ and make a real difference in the battle against climate change,” Pekney said.

​  Natalie Pekney and Dennis Donaldson measuring methane emissions from an abandoned, unplugged oil well. ​
Natalie Pekney and Dennis Donaldson measuring methane emissions from an abandoned, unplugged oil well.

As a member of NETL’s field monitoring team, Pekney spends considerable time outside of the lab to develop best practices to find and characterize undocumented orphaned oil and gas wells. Fieldwork projects for Pekney and the team have included locating and measuring emissions from wells in Oklahoma, New York, Pennsylvania and the Daniel Boone National Forest, which spans 21 counties in eastern Kentucky.

Since joining NETL in 2008, Pekney has supported NETL’s efforts to create career opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As part of these efforts, Pekney has participated in events such as GirlCon, a conference to inspire and empower young women to serve as the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Pekney has also served as a mentor for early-career researchers and students who come to NETL through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education program and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship program.

Pekney grew up on her family’s farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, an upbringing she credits with developing the problem-solving skills needed to pursue a career in engineering. Click here to watch a video about Pekney’s career path and her work at NETL.

Flemming Awards will be presented in November at the annual conference of the National Academy of Public Administration in Washington, D.C. A total of 12 awards are presented annually in five categories. Pekney will be recognized in the
Applied Science and Engineering category.

The George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration coordinates the awards and hosts an annual award presentation ceremony.

NETL is a DOE national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. With its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.