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