Old oil and gas sites are a climate menace. Meet the company that owns more of America’s decaying wells than any other.
Hutson is the founder and chief executive officer of one of the strangest companies ever to hit the American oil patch and the reason for our four-day visit to the Appalachian region. While other oilmen focus on drilling the next gusher, Hutson buys used wells that generate just a trickle or nothing at all. Over the past four years his Diversified Energy Co. has amassed about 69,000 wells, eclipsing Exxon Mobil Corp. to become the largest well owner in the country. Investors love him. Since listing shares in 2017, Hutson’s company has outperformed almost every other U.S. oil and gas stock, swelling his personal stake to more than $30 million.
Hutson says there’s no cause for worry. He claims to be able to squeeze more gas out of old wells than other companies can and keep them going longer. On average, he figures his wells have an additional 50 years in them, which means there’s no hurry to start socking away money to plug them. It also means they could be spouting pollution long past 2050, the target date set by President Joe Biden for zeroing out emissions across the economy.
Advocates for natural gas call it a cleaner fossil fuel because it releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal when burned. But there’s a catch: Left unburned, natural gas consists mostly of methane, which is much better at trapping heat. Released into the air, a ton of methane will cause at least 80 times more warming over the next 20 years than a ton of carbon dioxide. That’s one reason controlling methane is among the cheapest and quickest ways to slow climate change and limit the wildfires, heat waves, rising seas, and droughts it’s unleashing. According to one recent estimate, putting a lid on human-caused methane emissions could prevent as much as one-third of the warming expected in the next few decades.