Two orphaned wells that were just plugged in Montana are the latest of seven wells on track to be plugged by the Well Done Foundation, a relatively new nonprofit that’s led by an old, familiar face in the Bakken.
Curtis Shuck, formerly manager of Red River Oil in Williston, has founded a nonprofit dedicated to plugging old and abandoned oil wells, inspired after seeing dozens of dormant oil wells while driving back and forth in Montana. The wells he saw, he learned, are among more than 200 orphaned oil and gas wells in the state. They are all legacy wells that predate more modern bonding requirements for the management of oil and gas wells once their economic life has ended.
With his background in the oil and gas industry, Shuck realized that each of those orphaned wells are still emitting literally tons of greenhouse gases. But what he didn’t realize, until he began to investigate more deeply, is just how how prevalent the problem of abandoned wells is nationwide.
“There are 3 million and some orphaned wells in the United States,” he said, referring to an estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency. “That’s a crazy number for these. And, as I started to investigate further, looking at what the wells are emitting in terms of methane and greenhouse gases it’s just a crazy amount. So that is where the vision for Well Done was born.”
The two wells plugged in Montana are part of a pilot project, to demonstrate how the Well Done program works and to show what it can do to facilitate shutting in abandoned wells.
“We are taking the lessons learned here in Montana, both from the surface owner relationship perspective and from how we are working with the regulators, and that is our template going forward,” Shuck said. “So far, we’ve had nothing but a great reception and success with local government and state government and surface owners. It’s a good deal for everyone. It saves the state money, solves problems for the surface owner, and it’s great for the environment.”
The latest two wells that the nonprofit has plugged, the Allen #31-8 and Blum #12, are not part of the Bakken at all. They are both legacy wells in the Kevin-Sunburst Oilfield. They last produced crude oil in the late 1980s, according to the Montana Board of Oil & Gas.
They were orphaned shortly after the bust in the 80s. They went to the state by default, after their operator went out of business and forfeited its bond.
Plugging the wells is going to eliminate a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, Shuck said.
“Like the Big West Anderson Well No. 3 that we just closed, it had a carbon footprint of 6,600 tons of emissions per year,” Shuck said. “(Closing that) is a significant climate benefit. And that’s what I love about this project. It’s really non-partisan. It doesn’t matter if you are a climate crusader or denier or agnostic. You cannot walk about and look at these wells and see an open well bore that is emitting gas to the tune that these are and think that is right.”
Shuck said while the program is one of facilitation, rather than doing any actual plugging work, he believes the organization will be able to help states with excessive numbers of orphaned wells finally put them to rest. While the 501C3 is accepting donations, it’s not relying only on that. It’s also developing a carbon financing strategy to help states deal with such wells. Each well costs around $30,000 or so to plug, Shuck estimates.
“North Dakota, with 500 orphan wells, can probably pull that off, but states like Pennsylvania with 700,000 probably cannot,” he said. “Kansas has over 15,000 orphaned wells and a lot of them are these really shallow wells. They are nothing like a Bakken well, so it is completely different in terms of the economics of the field.”
Shuck said his next stop is going to be Kansas. North Dakota is also a likely stop in the near future.
“Twenty-five states have these orphan well issues,” he said. “North Dakota is similar to Montana and they don’t have crazy numbers as far as a high amount, compared to a state like Pennsylvania.”