Montana may be known for its stunning grass plains, but what most people don’t know is that there are many unplugged oil wells across the state’s farmlands that leak thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gasses such as methane each year. They can also leach toxins into groundwater and surface water systems, contaminating aquifers.
More often than not, these wells simply aren’t being cleaned up. That’s in part because a lack of funding and political will has stymied the state’s cleanup efforts, and in part, because there’s uncertainty around the ownership of these wells.
A foundation formed in 2019 could finally help clean up some of these abandoned oil wells. The foundation, which is known as Well Done, identifies oil wells around the state, and then posts a financial bond to the state’s Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, a way for the state to track and partially fund the plugging. In doing so, the state is holding up its end of the bargain, but without this push from Well Done, it might take the state years to accomplish what the Foundation does in months.
The foundation researches individual oil well emissions for about nine months as well as studying the construction of a well, how deep it goes, and the materials that are required to plug it. Founder Curtis Shuck says it’s important that the foundation does its due diligence to identify wells that have collapsed in on themselves or have an obstruction that needs to be addressed before plugging. Then the foundation works with county commissions, private entities, and those who own the surface land to develop and execute a “plugging plan,” which so far has been funded by private or anonymous donors.
The actual plugging of the well takes only a few days, and then the Foundation works to restore the surface land to its “pre-drilling condition,” which allows a farmer to seed the land and grow crops. In late April, the foundation successfully plugged its first well—a 96-year-old well called Big West Anderson #3 in Toole County that it had “adopted” by taking over legal responsibility from the state.
The well, which hadn’t produced oil since the 1980s, had been releasing 6,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Just one day after the foundation plugged Big West Anderson #3, its greenhouse gas emissions were nonexistent. That is why the work of Well Done is so dang important!