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From 'dirty secret' to federally funded: Orphaned wells are finally getting the attention they need

capping wells
Posted at 11:17 AM, Jan 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-01 13:21:48-05

SHELBY, Mt. — A veteran of the oil industry, Curtis Shuck is on a new path these days: cleaning up the mess left behind by orphaned wells.

"I was raised in a family where we had a principle of leave it better than the way you found it, and so I just, I couldn't just fathom that this was left behind and that people thought that it was okay," he said.

Orphaned wells are oil or natural gas wells that have been abandoned by companies for one reason or another. Like a straw stuck into a juice box, these wells have been left open, many for decades, and are leaking toxins, like methane gas, into the environment.

"Many of these have no control at the surface. You see it’s literally just an open hole at the surface," he said, showing an orphaned well from the 1920's in a field outside of Shelby, Montana.

This is why he started the Well Done foundation, a nonprofit that uses donations to find, measure, report and plug up orphaned wells. It's a process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"It was always everybody's dirty little secret. Nobody wanted to talk about it because it was a black eye on the industry, a black eye on the regulatory agencies," said Shuck.

But now, the problem of orphaned wells is becoming too big to be ignored. It’s hard to get exact numbers because the previous owners of the wells are defunct, but the environmental protection agency estimates there are at least 2.1 million wells across the united states.

From California to New York, at least half of the states in America have clusters of abandoned wells.

"Orphan Wells themselves are somewhere between a 10th of a percent and a third of a percent of the U.S. climate footprint," said Adam Peltz, senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Funs.

He said that along with being a leaker of methane gas, orphaned wells are also tied to ground water contamination and air toxins.

"That potentially has public health ramifications impacts on property values, which have impacts downstream on like school funding and stuff like that," he said.

The infrastructure bill that’s been made law has set aside $1.15 billion to states to plug wells, and another $3.55 billion to create a new federal program to focus on the issue. Peltz says that's an important piece.

"We need to figure out how to adjust policies so that those wells can be plugged in a timely fashion at the end of their lives," said Peltz.

Meanwhile, Curtis and Well Done have been in communication with different states about best practices to plug orphaned wells, hopefully inspiring others to join the effort to put a cap on this issue.