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These Teens Adopted an Orphaned Oil Well. Their Goal: Shut It Down.

ScienceThese Teens Adopted an Orphaned Oil Well. Their Goal: Shut It Down.


As a child in Bolivia, Mateo De La Rocha told his family he wanted to work as a garbage man when he grew up. In La Paz, his home city at the time, trash piles were everywhere. In Mr. De La Rocha’s eyes, the local sanitation worker was the only person cleaning up pollution. “I didn’t really see anyone doing anything about it, apart from the garbage man,” he said.

His family later moved to the United States, and now Mr. De La Rocha is a high school senior in Cary, N.C., who has found a unique way to clean up pollution: Along with two friends, he recently raised $11,000 to plug an abandoned oil well in Ohio that was leaking gas close to a barn on a horse farm. It’s an unusually niche cause for young environmentalists to take up, but one with a potentially significant effect on global climate change.

As many as 3.9 million abandoned and aging oil and gas wells dot the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The reasons for abandonment vary, but at least 126,000 of these wells are orphans, meaning there’s no longer an owner or company that state regulators can hold responsible for them. And many of the wells leak methane, a greenhouse gas that’s nearly 30 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a period of 100 years, and even more powerful over shorter time periods.

The E.P.A. estimates that abandoned wells collectively released 303,000 metric tons of methane in 2022, roughly equivalent to how much carbon dioxide 23 gas-burning power plants might release in one year. This estimate, however, is highly uncertain.

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $4.7 billion to states, tribes and federal agencies to plugorphaned wells, but given their sheer number and the enormous geographic area they cover, these federal funds will not be enough.

“No single group is going to solve this problem,” said Andrew Govert, the program manager of a Department of Energy initiative to find undocumented orphaned wells and establish best practices for measuring their pollution. “I think it’s going to take NGOs, government, industry. It’s kind of all hands on deck.”

After completing his Advanced Placement environmental science class, Mr. De La Rocha, 18, said he realized that the methane from these abandoned wells was an issue in which individual people could potentially make a difference. He invited his friends and classmates Sebastian Ng and Lila Gisondi to join him. They call themselves the Youth Climate Initiative.

“When Mateo approached me about this and I really looked into these methane wells and what we can do about it, it really kind of flipped a switch,” Mr. Ng, 17, said. Before, he had felt like there wasn’t anything he could do about climate change, he said, and he would simply joke about the world ending.

For Ms. Gisondi, 18, talking with her friends about these methane-emitting wells brought climate change from the back of her mind to the forefront. “It was something that I felt like I could actually help with,” she said.

When a well is no longer being used to pump oil and gas, it’s supposed to be closed off with cement in a process called capping or plugging. But many have been left open, often in disrepair, polluting groundwater and leaking toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide into the air. The wells can be extremely dangerous for people nearby.

After more research, the trio connected with a nonprofit organization called the Well Done Foundation that plugs orphaned wells. The organization was founded by Curtis Shuck, a veteran of the oil and gas industry who came across his first abandoned well in 2019.

When Mr. Shuck saw that first well, he recalled thinking, “This is embarrassing for me as somebody who’s been in the business, and this can’t continue,” he said. “This orphan well thing has been everybody’s dirty little secret.”

He secured the domain name and nonprofit registration for the Well Done Foundation later that same day. Since then, his organization has surveyed more than 1,700 abandoned wells around the country and plugged 44 of what they identified as the most problematic ones.

The students in North Carolina agreed to sponsor the 45th, an orphaned oil well on the horse farm in Ohio, near Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The well is next to the farm’s barn and only about 100 yards from the landowners’ house.

Melissa and Bill Simmons bought the property in 2016, with two sons and several horses and chickens in tow. Nearly all the properties they had considered in the region had old oil or gas wells on them.

At first they thought, “Everybody else has these things,” Ms. Simmons said. “It must be OK.”

The well on their farm had been drilled in 1983 by a company called Pine Top, which is now out of business.

About a year after moving in, the Simmons family noticed the well was leaking gas. The boys could hear it hissing when they were outside doing chores. When it rained and water collected in the pumpjack’s nooks and crannies, the family could see gas bubbling up through the water. And eventually, they could smell gas inside the barn and had to leave the doors open, fearing a buildup and explosion.

Ms. Simmons contacted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. She learned that state officials were dealing with a very long list of orphaned wells — more than 20,000 documented so far in Ohio, which is one of the country’s oldest oil-producing regions — and that hers did not warrant immediate action. But after many calls, one official told her about the Well Done Foundation and said the nonprofit group might be able to help.

They connected at the end of 2021, more than three years after the Simmons family first noticed the well leaking. Mr. Shuck traveled to the farm, confirmed they had a problem and agreed to take on the project.

After the Youth Climate Initiative joined the effort, they raised money in small increments over the course of about three months. One of the most poignant donations came from Mr. De La Rocha’s 10-year-old cousin, who gave all of his birthday money, a total of $120, to the cause. The fund-raiser was featured in a popular newsletter, Gen Dread, that explores the issue of climate anxiety among young people.

The students also persuaded the Reimer Family Climate Crisis Fund, a small family foundation based in Austin, Texas, that had previously given to Well Done, to match their donations. The $11,000 the students raised will cover approximately 15 percent of the project’s total cost. Well Done will cover the rest of the cost through other donations and sponsors.

Work began this year. On Thursday, contractors began pouring the cement that will plug the well.

The Well Done Foundation hopes to scale this adopt-a-well model nationally. The organization has also started the process of potentially getting carbon credits issued through the American Carbon Registry, which runs a voluntary market for individuals and companies to purchase credits that fund projects meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Research on the methane emissions from abandoned and orphaned wells is still young. In a 2016 study of 138 abandoned wells, the highest emissions rate the researchers measured was about 150 grams of methane per hour. The average for unplugged wells was about 10 grams per hour.

According to measurements by Mr. Shuck and his colleagues, the well in Ohio was leaking more than 10,000 grams of methane per hour at one point.

Referring to Well Done’s figure, Amy Townsend-Small, a professor of environmental science at the University of Cincinnati who was lead author on the 2016 study, said “the emission rate is much, much, much higher than any well we’ve ever measured.”

Mr. Shuck acknowledged that some of the Well Done Foundation’s measured methane emission rates are exceptionally high, which sometimes elicits skepticism. He attributes this to using newer instruments and having measured so many wells.

“There’s lots of ways to test,” said Mary Kang, an assistant professor of civil engineering at McGill University in Montreal and the lead author of the first study on methane from abandoned wells, published in 2014. “No one can do it perfectly.”

Dr. Kang added that there are potential issues with issuing carbon credits in exchange for plugging orphaned wells. One is the fact that wells in the same area could be connected underground through cracks in the rock formations. Plugging one well could simply send methane into the atmosphere through a different, unplugged well.

“It’s like Whac-a-Mole,” she said.

The Biden administration’s signature climate law, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, established a new program through the Department of the Interior that is responsible for handing out $4.7 billion in federal grants.

“The problem is so huge,” Mr. Shuck said, that the new federal funds “really are just a down payment. There are so many wells, and these wells are so expensive.”

Going forward, the oil and gas industry needs to be responsible for plugging its old wells, said Adam Peltz, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund who works on oil and gas issues.

And in fact, the Bureau of Land Management recently increased the amount of money it requires oil and gas companies to set aside for well-plugging before they even start drilling, to avoid more wells being orphaned in the future.

But for existing orphaned wells, Mr. Peltz said, especially those that predate modern regulations: “Whatever it takes to plug them.”

Now that final exams, sports tournaments and prom are out of the way, Mr. De La Rocha, Mr. Ng and Ms. Gisondi plan to raise money to plug a second orphaned well this summer.



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