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

these teens adopted an orphaned oil well. their goal: shut it down.

From left: Lila Gisondi, Mateo De La Rocha and Sebastian Ng, high school seniors in Cary, N.C., who adopted an oil well in Ohio that was leaking gas.

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.

these teens adopted an orphaned oil well. their goal: shut it down.

A warning sign near the students’ adopted well in Ohio.

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.

these teens adopted an orphaned oil well. their goal: shut it down.

Workers prepared to plug the well this month.

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.”

Taking Initiative

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.

these teens adopted an orphaned oil well. their goal: shut it down.

Crew members prepared to pump cement down the well on Thursday.

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.

these teens adopted an orphaned oil well. their goal: shut it down.

Mr. Shuck said that the well in Ohio had one of the highest rates of methane escape that his foundation has encountered.

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.

these teens adopted an orphaned oil well. their goal: shut it down.

The teenagers plan to adopt another well this summer.

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.

A National Problem

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.

OTHER NEWS

22 minutes ago

Fever Teammate Hilariously Blames Caitlin Clark After Win Vs. Sky

22 minutes ago

Sharks biting fishers' catch off lines highlights concern about increased interaction

22 minutes ago

Phillies manager Rob Thomson ejected in the 6th inning during an animated argument

22 minutes ago

La Liga club make £25m bid for Mason Greenwood

22 minutes ago

Soccer-France captain Mbappe says extremes are knocking on door of power

22 minutes ago

Lionel Messi: Eldest son reveals dream Barcelona playing partner; preference between Argentina, Spain

22 minutes ago

Climate change activists threaten to disrupt Austrian Grand Prix

25 minutes ago

A fast-moving wildfire spreads north of Los Angeles, forcing evacuations

26 minutes ago

Why isn't Jack Grealish playing for England at Euro 2024?

26 minutes ago

'Ghostly' car park remains unused as gridlocked residents prefer public transport

26 minutes ago

Jude Bellingham and Trent Alexander-Arnold debut new celebration after Real Madrid star opens scoring against Serbia with thumping header

26 minutes ago

Erik ten Hag: Manchester United ‘told me that they have spoken to other managers’

26 minutes ago

Nic Batum recalls special moment with Jerry West on his first day as a Clipper

26 minutes ago

Natasha Bedingfield makes surprise appearance at Capital’s Summertime Ball

26 minutes ago

Juan Pablo Montoya’s ‘competition’ verdict on differing Mercedes v Red Bull team-mate philosophies

26 minutes ago

Yemen's Houthis say they attacked two ships, American destroyer in Red and Arabian seas

30 minutes ago

'Make them suffer' - Assured Austria promise courage against mighty France

32 minutes ago

Kevin Brophy Dies: Star Of TV Series ‘Lucan’ And Actor In Horror Classic ‘Hell Night’ Was 70

32 minutes ago

Diddy returns key to NYC after request from Mayor Eric Adams

32 minutes ago

Sharjah Team's Rusty Wyatt dominates Grand Prix of Italy

35 minutes ago

Why tapes of Marilyn Monroe's therapy sessions could prove her death 'definitely wasn't suicide'

37 minutes ago

Real would not let me play at Olympics - Mbappe

37 minutes ago

Love Island chaos as new twist sees six stars told to leave villa in show first

37 minutes ago

Eight best false eyelashes to buy in 2024 for every look, eye shape and budget

38 minutes ago

Rory McIlroy in pursuit of US Open leader Bryson DeChambeau

39 minutes ago

Daily use of Listerine mouthwash may increase risk of bacteria linked to cancer, study claims

39 minutes ago

'New Nostradamus' names date World War 3 will start - and it's just days away

39 minutes ago

Video: Michael William Nash, 42, is identified as gunman who injured nine people at Rochester Hills splash pad

39 minutes ago

Video: Dangerously hot temperatures to hit US this week with heatwave expected to send temperatures as high as 105F prompting warning from health officials

39 minutes ago

Video: England 1-0 Serbia: Three Lions lead in the second half after flying header from Jude Bellingham got their Euros campaign off to strong start - with WAGs leading the celebrations in the stands

39 minutes ago

Video: Michael William Nash, 42, is identified as gunman who injured nine people at Rochester Hills splash pad

39 minutes ago

Grinning England fan who went viral at Qatar World Cup for being a Steve McClaren lookalike is spotted at Three Lions' opening Euros match

39 minutes ago

Woodridge, Brisbane house fire: Mother and son tragically die

42 minutes ago

Severe storms could bring damaging winds, tornado threat to Chicago area

43 minutes ago

Varsho’s grand slam leads Blue Jays past Guardians

43 minutes ago

Armie Hammer On Cannibalism & Abuse Accusations That Shut Him Out Of Hollywood: “I’m Grateful For Every Single Bit Of It”

43 minutes ago

Biden marks Eid while acknowledging the suffering of civilians in Gaza

43 minutes ago

New Manchester United contract not 'easily done' - Ten Hag

43 minutes ago

Euro 2024: Man shot by Hamburg police after fan zone threat

43 minutes ago

Why The Las Vegas Raiders Shouldn't Pursue Dak Prescott in Free Agency