Home News These teenagers adopted an abandoned oil well. Their goal: to shut it...

These teenagers adopted an abandoned oil well. Their goal: to shut it down.


When Mateo de la Rocha was a child growing up in Bolivia, he told his family that he wanted to be a cleaner when he grew up. At that time, in his hometown of La Paz, garbage dumps were everywhere. In de la Rocha’s eyes, local sanitation workers were the only ones cleaning up the pollution. “Besides the cleaners, I really didn’t see anyone taking action on this,” he said.

His family later moved to the United States, and Mr. de la Rocha, now a high school student in Cary, North Carolina, has found a unique approach to pollution cleanup: He and two friends recently raised $11,000 to plug an abandoned oil well in Ohio that was leaking near a horse farm barn. It’s an unusually niche cause for a young environmentalist, but one that could have a big impact on global climate change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there are as many as 3.9 million abandoned and aging oil and gas wells in the U.S. The reasons for abandonment vary, but at least 126,000 of them are orphan wells, meaning there is no longer an owner or company to take responsibility for them. Many wells leak methane, a greenhouse gas that is nearly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over 100 years, and even more potent over shorter periods of time.

The EPA estimates that abandoned oil wells released 303,000 metric tons of methane in 2022, roughly equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 23 gas-fired power plants. But this estimate is subject to great uncertainty.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 allocated $4.7 billion to states, tribes, and federal agencies to plug abandoned oil wells, but these federal funds are far from enough given the number of abandoned wells and the vast geographic area covered.

“No one organization is going to solve this problem alone,” said Andrew Govert, program manager for an Energy Department initiative to find unregistered abandoned wells and develop best practices for measuring their pollution. “I think it’s going to take a collaborative effort between NGOs, government and industry. It’s going to take everybody working together.”

After completing an Advanced Placement environmental science course, Mr. de la Rocha, 18, said he realized the methane from these abandoned wells was an issue that individuals could make a difference on. He asked friends and classmates Sebastian Ng and Lila Gisondi to join him. They called themselves the Youth Climate Initiative.

“When Mateo approached me about it, I really looked into these methane wells and what we could do, and it really changed my mind,” said Wu, 17. He said he previously felt he could do nothing about climate change and would only joke about the end of the world.

For Ms. Gissendi, 18, talking to friends about the methane-emitting wells has made her realize the magnitude of the issue of climate change. “I feel like I can really do something about it,” she said.

When wells are no longer used to extract oil and gas, they are supposed to be sealed with cement, a process called capping or plugging. But many wells are left open, often in a state of disrepair, contaminating groundwater and leaking toxic gases such as hydrogen sulfide into the air. These wells are extremely dangerous for people living nearby.

Further research led the trio to a nonprofit called the Well Done Foundation, which works to seal abandoned wells. The organization’s founder is Curtis Shuck, an oil and gas industry veteran who discovered his first abandoned well in 2019.

Mr. Schack recalled that when he saw the first well, he thought: “This is too embarrassing for me as a practitioner. This can’t go on any longer.” “This orphan well has always been everybody’s dirty little secret.”

Later that day, he applied for a domain name and nonprofit registration for the Well Done Foundation. Since then, his organization has surveyed more than 1,700 abandoned oil wells across the country and sealed the 44 they considered the most problematic.

The North Carolina students agreed to help fund Well No. 45, an abandoned well on an Ohio horse farm near Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The well is adjacent to the farm’s barn and only about 100 yards from the owner’s house.

Melissa and Bill Simmons bought the property in 2016 with their two sons, horses and chickens. Almost all of the properties in the area they considered had old oil or gas wells on them.

At first they thought, “Everyone else has these things,” Ms. Simmons said, “so it must be OK.”

The well on their farm was drilled in 1983 by a now-defunct company called Pine Top.

About a year after moving in, the Simmons family noticed a gas leak in the well. The kids could hear it hissing while they were outside doing chores. When it rained, water accumulated in the nooks and crannies of the pump, and the family could see gas coming out of the water. Eventually, they smelled gas in the barn and had to leave the door open for fear it would build up and explode.

Simmons contacted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. She learned that state officials were dealing with a long list of abandoned wells — Ohio is one of the oldest oil-producing states in the country, with more than 20,000 wells documented to date — and that her well didn’t require immediate action. But after making numerous calls, an official told her about the Well Done Foundation and said the nonprofit might be able to help.

They finally got the water connected in late 2021, more than three years after the Simmonses first noticed the well was leaking. Mr. Schake came to the farm, confirmed that they did have a problem, and agreed to take on the project.

After the Youth Climate Initiative joined the effort, they raised the money in batches over about three months. One of the most touching donations came from Mr. de la Rocha’s 10-year-old cousin, who donated all his birthday money (a total of $120) to the cause. In a popular newsletter, Gen Dreadexploring climate anxiety among young people.

The students also convinced the Austin, Texas-based Reimer Family Climate Crisis Fund, which had previously donated to Well Done, to match its donation. The $11,000 raised by the students will cover about 15 percent of the total cost of the project. Well Done will cover the rest through other donations and sponsors.

Work began this year, and on Thursday, contractors began pouring cement to seal the well.

The Well Done Foundation hopes to expand the adopt-a-well model across the country. The organization has also initiated a process to issue carbon credits through the U.S. Carbon Registry, which operates a voluntary market where individuals and companies can buy credits to finance projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Research on methane emissions from abandoned and unoccupied wells is in its infancy. A 2016 study of 138 abandoned oil wellsThe highest emissions the researchers measured were about 150 grams of methane per hour. The average for unplugged wells was about 10 grams per hour.

Mr. Schake and his colleagues measured that the Ohio well was leaking more than 10,000 grams of methane per hour.

“The discharge rates are much higher than any well we’ve ever measured,” Amy Townsend-Small, a professor of environmental science at the University of Cincinnati and lead author of the 2016 study, said of Well Done’s data.

Mr. Schake acknowledged that some of the methane emissions measured by the Well Done Foundation were unusually high, which sometimes raised suspicions. He attributed that to using newer instruments and measuring so many wells.

“There are many ways to test this,” said Mary Kang, assistant professor of civil engineering at McGill University in Montreal and lead author of the first study. Methane from abandoned oil wells”, published in 2014. “No one is perfect.”

Dr. Kang added that there could be problems with sealing abandoned oil wells in exchange for carbon credits. One problem is that wells in the same area can be connected through fractures in the underground rock. Sealing one well could allow methane to be released into the atmosphere through another unsealed well.

“It’s like a game of whack-a-mole,” she said.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the climate law signed by the Biden administration, established a new program through the Department of the Interior to distribute $4.7 billion in federal grants.

“The problem is so bad,” Schake said, and the new federal money “is really just a down payment. There are too many wells, and those wells are too expensive.”

Adam Peltz, an attorney who works on oil and gas issues at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that going forward, the oil and gas industry needs to take responsibility for plugging old wells.

In fact, the Bureau of Land Management Recently increased the number Oil and gas companies must set aside enough money to cap wells before they start drilling to avoid more wells becoming stuck in the future.

But for existing abandoned wells, especially those from before modern regulations were enacted, Peltz said: “You have to plug them no matter what.”

Now that final exams, sports games and dances are over, Mr. De La Rocha, Mr. Wu and Ms. Guisandi plan to raise funds to seal a second abandoned oil well this summer.

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