A farmer for most of his life, Sam Stewart bought farmland in Montana about 35 years ago. Since then, he’s planted and harvested his wheat and other crops around 16 open oil wells on this land, which he estimates were dug in the 1920s.
Maneuvering around the wells is not an arduous process, per se, but it requires seeding the same area twice, which is wasteful and can slow his process. The real nuisance is the invisible methane wafting into the air—a greenhouse gas with an impact 10 times that of carbon dioxide. “You don’t want loose gas being just emitted,” Stewart says.
Unplugged wells in Montana and across the country leak thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. They can also leach toxins into groundwater and surface water systems, contaminating aquifers. More often than not, these wells simply aren’t being cleaned up. That’s in part because a lack of funding and political will has stymied the state’s cleanup efforts, and in part because there’s uncertainty around ownership. “I didn’t know they were actually abandoned,” Stewart says of the multiple orphaned wells on his property. “I thought the oil company was responsible.”
A foundation formed in 2019 could finally help clean up some of these abandoned oil wells, including those on Stewart’s property. “The operator who is responsible is long gone,” says Curtis Shuck, founder of the Well Done Foundation. “Our focus is doing the right thing, leaving it better than the way we found it.”
The first oil wells in Montana were drilled at the turn of the century, and the industry experienced its first boom in the 1920s. Energy demands of World War II spurred a second boom; between 1942 and 1945, oil production in the Elk Basin region increased from 16,000 to 940,000 barrels annually. When those wells no longer produced oil, companies could just leave. The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission of Montana, tasked with identifying and plugging abandoned wells, wasn’t created until 1954, and by that time an untold number of wells had already been drilled, produced, and abandoned.
As more companies moved into Montana, oil and gas production grew into an increasingly important part of local and state economies; by 2015, it made up 5.6% of the state’s general fund. But the industry that once was a cornerstone of Montana’s economy is now in a nosedive: a yearslong decline in global oil production and demand compounded by the pandemic-induced economic slowdown has produced some of the worst oil production conditions in recent years.
In 2016, the most recent year for which he was able to provide data, 4,713 oil and gas wells were in operation in the state and 204 had been abandoned, according to Allen Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, a trade organization that works on behalf of the businesses. But that’s a fraction of the tens of thousands that have been drilled in Montana in the past century.
Data on abandoned wells remain incomplete, which further complicates cleanup efforts. Plus, state legislatures have drastically different policies on how to address abandoned wells. One thing remains certain: The issue is enormous and far-reaching. A 2018 report from the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the country has 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells.
Abandoned wells in Montana—left by companies that filed for bankruptcy, for example, default to the state. Theoretically, a state-run fund pays for well adoption and closure, but even under state control, the wells often lay unplugged, because plugging abandoned wells and restoring the surface land is expensive. Olson believes that the “state regulatory agency here is doing an excellent job staying on top” of plugging wells. But the state’s plugging plan doesn’t explicitly address the issue of abandoned oil wells, and also neglects to lay out a time-bound plan for plugging wells.
It’s not just that states like Montana don’t have a legislative apparatus to hold corporations accountable, says Mitch Jones, the climate and energy program director at Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit that pushes for corporate and government accountability. He says that the lack of governmental action is by design. When wells are abandoned, Jones says, “the costs of doing business are passed on to the public instead of being paid by the shareholders in the industry.”
Nationwide, the federal government’s own agency in charge of plugging abandoned wells, the Bureau of Land Management, has openly acknowledged that it doesn’t have the financial resources to tackle the issue of plugging wells on federal land. There was no federal nationwide bond requirement to cover the cost of reclaiming wells until the 1950s, and the required value for bonds has not increased since then.
That’s right: the amount required to cover the cost of cleanup has not been increased or adjusted for inflation for nearly 70 years, so the federal amount is woefully ineffective. Bond standards of a couple thousand dollars often don’t address wells that cost tens of thousands to plug, another cause for wells to be abandoned.
Jones believes that extractive companies are harming the environment and then escaping culpability by declaring bankruptcy. “Not pointing fingers isn’t really an option in order to win this fight against climate change,” he says. Identifying the sources of harm holds polluting industries accountable for supporting solutions and provides a pathway for legislation that protects the planet, Jones says. The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, for example, just proposed a $2 billion remediation program for orphaned wells in June, though given the political climate, that legislation has a rocky future.