TOOLE COUNTY, Mont. – About 30 miles south of the Canadian border, Well Done Foundation chairman Curtis Shuck meets his crew at an old oil well.
Well Done Foundation is a nonprofit that was formed specifically for identifying and plugging abandoned oil and gas wells.
Abandoned oil and gas wells, also called ‘orphaned’ wells, have been relinquished by companies that once used them. Well Done Foundation adopts the wells through an agreement to plug them up.
“So the well that we were on today, the Anderson #5 was drilled in 1926, and produced viable oil for maybe seventy of those years,” Shuck said.
Shuck says wells will transfer from operator to operator until the last person standing is out of business because the well is no longer commercially viable. He was inspired to start the foundation after discovering so many orphaned wells in Toole County.
“Well, you see one and you start to see more," Shuck said. "And I was literally horrified and embarrassed as being in the oil and gas industry for nearly 30 years. I just I couldn't believe that in any universe that it would be OK to leave something like that behind for somebody else to deal with.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are millions of orphaned wells across the U.S.
A percentage of those wells, like Anderson #5, are considered ‘super emitters’ because they’re releasing so much methane. Steven Hamburg is the chief scientist with Environmental Defense Fund.
“Methane is a potent, short lived greenhouse gas, which is responsible for more than one quarter of the warming we're experiencing today,” Hamburg said.
Hamburg says methane needs to be dealt with quickly because it could cause more warming than carbon dioxide in the next couple decades.
“Methane is going to drive the climate changes we see in my lifetime and my daughters to a large degree," Hamburg said. "And carbon dioxide will dominate the changes that we see over our grandchildren's grandchildren's lifetime.”
The sources of methane emissions include raising livestock, managing waste, and producing fossil fuels – like oil and gas. At the annual Climate Change Conference, more than a hundred countries signed a pledge to reduce methane emissions from human sources by 30%.
When it comes to plugging orphaned wells, Shuck says it hasn’t been a cheap endeavor. It’s been paid for through corporate sponsors, individual donors, fundraisers, and even out-of-pocket expenses.
“We can make a big impact one well at a time, every little bit counts,” Shuck said.
So far, since November of 2019, the Well Done Foundation has plugged 14 wells with cement – creating approximately 40 jobs along the way. And that number will continue to grow as Well Done scales up.
“We're opening up an entire new frontier, if you would, in the measurement and monitoring space,” Shuck said.
Shuck says the oil and gas industry is in a state of transition, and simply needs to adapt. Well Done Foundation has big plans for 2022 expanding into more states like Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and California.
“Let's leave this place better than the way we found it," he said. "Let's do our part and really lean in and we can make a difference and we are making a difference one well at a time."