Capping methane-spewing oil wells, one hole at a time

Across the U.S., abandoned wells are belching the powerful greenhouse gas. This nonprofit aims to plug them to fight global warming.

A drilling rig works on pulling pipe while plugging an abandoned oil well in Toole County, Mont., just one of many sites the Well Done Foundation is tackling. (Adrián Sanchez-Gonzalez for The Washington Post)

TOOLE COUNTY, Mont. — The stench bellows from the 1,500-foot hole in the ground, the remains of a well long ago abandoned by a bankrupt oil company. Despite the well’s rotten-egg smell, the real culprit is methane, and every year this single well spews the potent greenhouse-gas equivalent of roughly 600 cars.

It has been gushing, unchecked, for nearly three decades.

Curtis Shuck calls the well a “super emitter,” one of many in a wheat field not far from the Canadian border, a part of Montana known as the “golden triangle” for its bountiful crops. Aside from the scattered rusty pipes and junked oil tanks, the field is splendid and vast, its horizon interrupted intermittently by power lines and grain bins. On these plains, Shuck says, you can watch your dog run away for a week.

He is a former oil and gas executive who nowadays leads a small nonprofit — the result of a personal epiphany — and is tackling global warming one well at a time. That is the approach of his Well Done Foundation, plugging this and then other orphaned sites and trapping the methane underground. The effort started in Montana in 2019 but will expand to other states before the fall.

“When we’re done, it will be like this well was never here,” Shuck said, standing upwind as cement was pumped hundreds of feet down, through a series of pipes stuck in the 7½-inch-wide hole like a straw in a juice box.

A specialized camera shows an abandoned oil well in Montana spewing methane gas. The Well Done Foundation plugs wells like these to trap the gas underground. (Video: Curtis Shuck of the Well Done Foundation)

Hundreds of abandoned oil and natural gas wells cover Montana, according to Shuck, and nationally the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the number exceeds 3 million, which various people view as either way too low or way too high. Either way — and especially when what is escaping from the ground is measured by the metric ton — the math is ugly, the effects profound.

In the short term, methane is markedly more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas because of its ability to trap heat. Concentrations of methane in the atmosphere rose more sharply last year than at any time “since systematic measurements began in 1983,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in April.

Fossil fuel extraction is not the sole source of the problem, but many experts believe that curbing methane’s unchecked emission from oil and gas operations has great potential to slow Earth’s warming. The House weighed in last Friday, voting to restore Obama-era standards, relaxed by the Trump administration, that limit such emissions. President Biden is expected to sign the legislation.

“In combating methane, there are climate benefits to be realized within our lifetimes,” said Emily Connor, a scientist and program manager with the Yale Carbon Containment Lab, who recently visited Toole County to watch Well Done at work.

The 59-year-old Shuck’s own moment of realization came two summers ago as he was driving the dirt road that cuts through that Toole County field. He caught a foul waft and spotted a pile of corroded metal surrounding a hole that had once been an active well. Then he saw others, pock marks across the landscape.

He would later learn that the land was a century-old oil field, now mostly played out. When the petroleum company that had drilled many of these wells folded in the 1990s, as many did when crude prices bottomed out after the Gulf War, the open boreholes left behind became the responsibility of the state. There they have remained.

“It is what it is,” Shuck remembers a local farmer telling him. “We’ve been farming around these for decades.”

As he drove on, he conceived Well Done. He registered the domain name from the cab of his truck.

“Whether you are a climate denier or a climate advocate,” he stressed last month, “when you look at what I saw that first day, you can’t tell me that’s OK. There is no universe where leaving something behind like that is OK.”

So far Well Done has capped seven orphaned wells, all emitting significant levels of methane, and Shuck says it will likely cover two dozen more in Toole County by the end of the year. It is slow going, but he and the foundation’s board of directors see progress.

“Pretty soon, you look back, and we are plugging our seventh well, and we’ve stopped the emission of equal to thousands of automobiles. That’s not nothing,” he said.

The Biden administration’s infrastructure plan proposed $16 billion to address the country’s abandoned wells and mines, and separate legislation in Congress would spend $8 billion to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells. Montana sets aside $650,000 every two years for its work, though Jim Halvorson with its Board of Oil and Gas Conservation says it prioritizes wells that pose a “more serious and immediate” threat because they are leaking oil onto topsoil or sullying a water supply. Other states also have related programs.

Shuck welcomes those initiatives, even when they are slowed by bureaucracy or politics. But he thinks there is a place for his nonprofit model, a way for individuals to have an impact on a problem many perceive as overwhelming.

“Planting trees in the Amazon is a great endeavor,” he noted, “but plugging wells in your own backyard is also great. The gas is on, and then it’s off.”

Connor considers Well Done’s “nonprofit, private-citizen angle’’ unique and promising. It “is something very tangible to people,” she said, “and you can see, on the aggregate, how that adds up and contributes to a broader effort.”

Expanding to other states is the foundation’s next step. Shuck is already collaborating with regulatory agencies in Pennsylvania and Louisiana, and the monitoring of orphaned wells in those states will begin in July. He expects Well Done to plug the first wells there in August. Kansas is not far behind.

The work at each well costs about $30,000. To date, that money has come from individual donations or businesses wanting to offset their own carbon use. In particular, Shuck sees opportunities for oil and gas corporations “wanting to change the narrative.” In early June, a Tennessee-based oil and gas firm paid $120,000 for the foundation to cap four wells in Toole County, and it just announced a nearly $1 million pledge for tackling as many as 30 more wells around the country.

“If we are going to drill wells, we should at least fill up some existing legacy wellbores to help with the remediation issues that the industry has,” said Craig Perry, Origination’s chief executive.

Investing in Well Done made sense, Perry added, because of its early foray into identifying “super emitters” and plugging wells. “The reality is that [the foundation] is at the forefront.”

Even with a fair bit of methane monitoring and measuring per site, most of the costs involved are for the wages of contracted rig workers and for the thousands of pounds of cement poured down a hole to keep the gas in the ground. Well Done then clears whatever rusted scrap metal or rotted timbers remain. After it plugged its first well last spring, farmer Sam Stewart planted wheat there the next month.

Navigating a tractor and other equipment around the abandoned wells — 16 of them on his farm alone — was “a time killer” that long frustrated Stewart. “If it was up to me,” he said, “I would have just gone out with the backhoe and dug down 10 feet, cut them off and called it good.”

Yet he knows that Shuck and others are motivated by greater concerns. “They have these gases they are worried about,” he said. “I’m not a big global warming dude, but they do stink so I think cleaning that up is probably good.”

Shuck originally conceived Well Done as a for-profit venture but concluded the foundation could accomplish more without needing to return a profit. He does not take a salary and describes himself as “a volunteer with a well-plugging habit.” He insists he is not atoning for his former career in the oil industry.

“Finance to us is a means to an end,” he said. “It’s not the overall goal of our project. It’s more about making a difference and hopefully inspiring others to make a difference.”

Toole County is an odd spot for this to take hold. Donald Trump won 75 percent of the presidential vote here in 2020, and a T-shirt offered by a bar and grill in the nearby town of Oilmont declares: “Earth First. We will drill other planets later.”

Still, Shuck says Well Done has been well-received. He hires local help, buys local whenever he can and he refurbished a vacant building into a company “visitors center” on Main Street in the county seat of Shelby, population 3,000. He is also quick to offer that the past booms here helped grow a community, a state and a nation. Oil as an energy source is not the villain, he insists.

The nonprofit has its detractors. Shuck gets pushback from some in the oil industry, not because of the science behind Well Done’s goals but “because they feel we are bringing all of this attention to this problem in their own backyard. They are afraid that will translate in a higher cost for them to do business.

“To that, I say, ‘This is your wake-up call. This ship is sailing.’ We should at least strive to be better today than we were yesterday. I don’t think that is too much to ask.”

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