Might seem like a few bags of Quikrete® could do the trick, but bore holes like this one, from the 1920s, run deep, making them challenging to cap. Despite the mineral crust, they continue to leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas. When the Well Done Foundation finishes with them, they’re sealed off for good, and, to look around, you wouldn’t know they’d ever been there. Photo: courtesy of Curtis Shuck Jr.
A few times a week, I make the drive from my home in Ventura, California, up state Route 33 toward Ojai, then veer off to the friendly, drought-ringed shores of Lake Casitas. Mostly, I’m at the wheel of a carpool of masked-up teens headed to rowing practice; other times, I’m alone in the dark, sipping a little Peet’s Garuda Blend®, anticipating my own quiet, first-rays assault on the lake with a shell, sculling oars and a remarkably strong French vintner behind me in bow. Either way, I’m likely to indulge the same fantasy while passing the oil wells and pumpjacks along the 33.
In this fantasy, I’m no longer in a 14-year-old, fuel-inefficient Volvo SUV. Instead, I’m at the wheel of a big ol’ cement mixer. Three hooligan friends are in the cab with me; one has an infrared camera. We’re on a hunt! We’re searching among the rusted, defunct derricks for one that’s leaking methane gas, revealed in infrared as a black plume. Once we find it, we pull down our ski masks, roll up in our mixer, pour cement down the drill shaft, seal off the hole, then split before dawn—a Monkey Wrench Gang of greenhouse gas terminators. In a single night, we could eliminate a lifetime’s worth of global-warming emissions from, say, commutes to Lake Casitas in an old Volvo.
Actually, way more than that even.
The methane that leaks steadily from hundreds of inactive, unplugged wells here on the Central Coast of California is 25 times more potent a heat-trapping agent than the carbon dioxide spewing from my tailpipe. In fact, measured in the near term, methane is 80 to 85 times as gnarly as carbon dioxide for cooking the Earth.
Can we pause here for a sec? This is not hyperbole, or a matter of scientific dispute. Over the next decade, methane (CH4) in the atmosphere will retain 80 times more solar heat than carbon dioxide (CO2). If a startup guaranteed you an 80x return, would you invest? What about if your favorite charity had a fundraiser going, and some big cheese offered an 80x match—wouldn’t you choose then to turn your $100 dues into $8,000?
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Most of the wells near Lake Casitas went in during the 1940s. Some helped win World War II, but a number stopped producing oil in the ’80s or ’90s. Sealing off just one could be the equivalent of taking 1,500 cars off the road for a year—indefinitely.
And the road to Ojai is no outlier.
There are roughly 70,000 idle wells in California, according to the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), the state’s oil and gas regulatory body. Of those, 5,540 are “orphaned,” or at risk of becoming orphans—which is to say, they have “no viable operator” and represent a liability to California taxpayers like myself. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) counted 3.2 million inactive wells throughout the U.S., of which 2 million were found to be improperly plugged or not plugged at all. Seepage from oil and gas wells is the largest source of atmospheric methane in the U.S., well-ahead of cow patties, belches, farts and various other hard-to-measure sources of this “natural gas.” Oh, you might say, didn’t I read that Senate Democrats reenacted the “Obama rule” on methane that President Trump cancelled? Yes, but the “Obama rule” targets new and modified wells from the fracking boom, not the older, defunct wells that haunt my daydreams.
Finding a few Monkey Wrenchers to join my midnight gang was easy, although one friend might have requested more of a Watchmen vibe. Hey, man, Hayduke Lives! Fortunately, we may never have to risk arrest or injury, much less fight over pop culture inspiration. Turns out there’s an outfit up in Montana that’s way ahead of me. Along with the perfect name, the Well Done Foundation has the expertise and patience to do this work properly—legally, in broad daylight, and with sophisticated monitoring to guarantee its long-term success.
“It’s not rocket science, but there are some proven best practices,” says Curtis Shuck Jr., the 59-year-old founder of Well Done Foundation. Beginning with a summer working as a roustabout on Alaska’s North Slope in 1982, Shuck has been involved in the oil business the better part of 30 years. He swears no two wells are alike. “There’s always a surprise or two ‘down hole,’” he says.
In 2019, Shuck was in a wheat field in Montana’s Golden Triangle when he came across an abandoned well. “For me, it was a powerful moment to see the condition that these wells had been left in—how to any mind, in any universe, this was OK. And I had a choice. I could pretend I didn’t see it, or I could do something about it.” Over the next few months, he self-financed his first well plugging and removal; now he has a proven method and rallying cry and hashtag: “Fight climate change, #onewellatatime.”
A reasonable person might wonder why oil companies don’t do this work; they do, just not often enough. When a well goes in, the driller posts a bond to the state, akin to a security deposit, which the company can collect when it plugs the hole and removes its drilling rig. Problem is, these fees are too little, so some companies forfeit the bond and leave the work to others. It’s also rare for the original driller to stay involved. Over its decades-long “life,” a well gets sold and resold. Even if you can solve the chain-of-title mystery, the last company to own it might well be closed or bankrupt.
Shuck doesn’t care to point fingers. “We can all stand back and talk about it, but it doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t make the gas go away,” Shuck says. “Once we’ve done our job, the gas is off. Before, the gas was on. Now, it’s off.”
Well Done Foundation is not much bigger than my fantasy gang. So far, they’ve plugged 16 abandoned wells. Each one took between six months to a year to prepare and cost, on average, $34,000 to complete. But Shuck’s getting after it, and I, for one, wouldn’t bet against him eliminating more greenhouse gases than Bill Gates ever does. Shuck has begun partnerships with an organization to plug wells in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Oklahoma, and another in Louisiana, where Tito’s vodka is a sponsor. Now I just need to convince him to open a satellite office in Ventura.
Until I do, I’m purchasing carbon offsets from him. Offsets are credits you buy to counter the carbon pollution you create. Maybe because I was an early adopter, I’ve long found them dubious, like “paying someone else to diet for you,” as the critics say. In the case of Well Done Foundation, though, offset donations don’t go to planting trees, or letting grasses grow, in the hope they’ll someday absorb enough carbon dioxide for me to drive to Lake Casitas, conscience clear, and find water left to row on. Plugging wells puts an absolute, demonstrable stop to emissions.
Gas on, gas off.