In late September, the Montana-based Well Done Foundation plugged its first orphan oil well in Pennsylvania: a 19th-century relic in McKean County that last produced oil in the mid-1970s and has been leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas, equivalent to driving 1,440 cars for 10 years.
The foundation aims to be busy here — there are an estimated 200,000 unplugged, ownerless oil and gas wells to be found and filled in Pennsylvania — and it recently established a state headquarters at Innovation Park at Penn State.
The foundation leverages corporate sponsorships and individual donations instead of taxpayer funding to plug old wells. The McKean County well known as the Russell M. Clark Estate #11, for example, was plugged with funding from the oil and gas company Seneca Resources. The Well Done Foundation’s founder and chairman, Curtis Shuck, spoke from near the plugging site in Bradford.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
SHUCK: The orphan and abandoned well problem is well known in Pennsylvania. In our region, whole communities were built on unplugged wells in former oil and gas fields and the consequences crop up in some ugly ways. But it’s relatively rare for a nonprofit to tackle the problem here. What are the benefits of using a nonprofit model for plugging orphan wells?
The Well Done Foundation is really focused on greenhouse gas emissions, methane in particular. In fact, the Well Done Foundation is the sponsor of the American Carbon Registry’s first-of-its-kind carbon offset methodology for plugging and abandoning orphan oil and gas wells. But at the end of the day, not every orphan well is going to have enough of an emission factor to completely pay for the plugging and abandonment costs.
We felt strongly that it shouldn’t be a taxpayer burden — that it should be a market-based solution. The beauty of the nonprofit model is that way we can use other funds to tackle the problem. So maybe carbon finance only covers 50% or 70%, then we can use donations, corporate sponsorships and be able to do more.
PG: You’re working with a local, family-owned firm, Dallas-Morris Drilling, to plug this well and others. Many small oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania have struggled, depending on the commodity price. What kinds of local employment opportunities are there in this?
SHUCK: What’s cool is that these are guys who are fourth generation oil and gas. They get it. They care. They want to leave a positive legacy behind. They’re still very much involved in the industry, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s really been a great fit. I think what people are starting to see is that this is a brand new industry. So not only is it a benefit with the oil and gas folks, who are the rig hands and roustabouts and roughnecks, but it’s also a big deal for this new group coming up who help us to do the work with [greenhouse gas] measurement and monitoring. Because in the whole timeline of a project, the plugging aspect is maybe five days. And we’re talking about months of work, like six to nine months’ worth of work, to prep a well and get it ready to go.
PG: You had thousands of orphan and abandoned wells in Pennsylvania to choose from. How did you identify which to start with?
SHUCK: Because we took a liking to Bradford and there’s some history in the Bradford area and the [Morris] family is located here, we felt that it would make sense to kick off here. I don’t know that there was any real magic. It fit our criteria as far as emissions. It was in a family’s backyard, so access was relatively easy. Those were the things for us that were really a focus.
PG: Tell me a little bit about this project and this well.
SHUCK: This is a legacy well. No data existed on it, other than the well name. This was a well that was from the late 1800s on a family farm. Actually, we were able to find some really cool photographs of the old farmhouse and it has this particular well as it was being drilled. This well had rods and tubing still in the hole, so we knew at that point that we were probably going to be able to get close to the total depth that was drilled, so that was a good thing.
My job and my team’s job is to really act as a facilitator. We’re not the pluggers. We’re the preppers. We need to get the well prepared, and all the paperwork done, and then we’ll hand it off and oversee the work with the folks that are doing the plugging. But we want to be able to prepare what we call a pipeline of projects. That way we can keep dedicated crews working with us. You get into a rhythm and then you can really enjoy some economies of scale that way.
PG: Describe the trickiest well that you’ve plugged.
We were on one well for 21 days up in Montana. That’s been our toughest and most expensive to date. Without a bunch of good records [about the] subsurface we have no idea what’s happening down in the formation and so these wells just keep drinking cement. So that one has a lot of cement in it now. You just have to be prepared for that. Obviously, we’re keeping a running track on our cost averages and managing that. When people adopt a well, typically that number is around $30,000. We don’t go back to them and ask them to dig deeper into the pocket. We bring in other donations and it tends to average out, or it has thus far.
PG: There are some horror stories in Pennsylvania about the expense of some of the particularly tricky or hazardous plugging jobs, especially that the state has had to take on under emergency contracts.
SHUCK: We’re working with the state right now, in fact. Part of controlling the cost of plugging is something where the regulators can support us, because there are other aspects in the cost of a plug beside the rig and cement, like access. In this area up here, if we have to log our way in and build roads to every one of these wells that we’re going to plug, then the cost will be ginormous. So we’ve been working with DEP [the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] and the Allegheny National Forest saying, look, if you guys are lucky enough to get some stimulus or some recovery money, then maybe you ought to think about putting in some backbone infrastructure in some of these areas that have well density. It’ll make the plugging more economical, which will get us more plugs for the buck.
Here in Bradford, really on the same farmstead that we just plugged the Russell M. Clark #11, there’s a well, for instance, it’s literally in the middle of a creek. Think about what the cost of plugging that well is going to be, because now not only do we have to plug it, we got to get to it.
PG: Is that one on your list?
Well, it’s not on our immediate list, but it’s definitely in the area that we’re working and we’ve identified it. We’re starting to measure and monitor it now. But when I measured that well, I literally had to crawl out on a tree to get to it. So we’re gonna have to do a little better than that.