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Environment & Science

Nonprofit To Close A Third of Montana's Orphaned Oil, Gas Wells

A red semi hauls a large tank over bare earth under a blue sky.
Well Done Foundation
The Well Done Foundation capped Big Wes Anderson #3, a 96-year-old orphaned oil well in Toole County, Apr. 22, 2020.

A Montana nonprofit is at the beginning of closing roughly a third of Montana’s abandoned oil wells. The group says it aims to stop the wells from leaking carbon and methane into the environment.

The Well Done Foundation says it plugged its first well in Toole County in late April and monitoring shows it no longer emits greenhouse gasses.

While Montana has relatively few orphaned wells compared to other states - a couple hundred instead of thousands - Curtis Shuck with the Well Done Foundation says about two dozen wells can put tens of thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gasses to the environment.

“On an annual basis, it’s literally hundreds and hundreds of semi trucks stacked up,” he says. “And I had an analogy once if you lined them up from end to end, they’d stretch from Shelby to Helena.”

According to the Well Done Foundation, this first well alone emitted more than 6,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually.

Shuck says defunct operators left the Toole County wells to the state when operators were unable to pay for plugging. The Well Done Foundation paid the state to bond the wells and took on the cost of plugging them, about $25,000 per unit, which the nonprofit funds through its corporate and individual donors.

The Well Done Foundation has about sixty more wells to plug in Toole County, 20 of which the organization aims to complete this year, and Shuck says he’d also like to eventually close all 200 wells in the state.