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The nonprofits cleaning up the oil and gas industry’s ‘dirty little secret’

More than a million abandoned wells are found throughout the country. Charities have popped up to help deal with the massive problem

One of the abandoned wells in Montana that first caught Curtis Shuck's attention. (Well Done Foundation)

By Terry L. Jones Curtis Shuck stumbled upon what he calls one of the oil and gas industry’s “dirty little secrets” while visiting Montana for a work-related trip in 2019. It was a rusted, uncapped oil well in the middle of a wheat field — literally a hole in the ground. And there wasn’t just one; there were several.

“These were images that I could not get out of my mind that day,” Shuck said. At the time, he had worked for 30 years in the oil and gas industry. “I was alarmed, disappointed, embarrassed and shocked that the industry would leave something like this behind without at least cleaning up after itself. I could not ‘unsee’ this stuff.”

The wells aren’t just eyesores. They can leak hydrogen sulfide, benzene and arsenic into the groundwater and are a significant source of methane — a highly flammable, powerful gas that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Shuck’s discovery in Montana led him to establish the Well Done Foundation, a nonprofit organization that in the past year has plugged more than 22 orphaned and abandoned oil wells in nine states.

But there are at least one million more abandoned wells to plug. President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Package provides up to $4.7 billion to plug some of them, including $560 million awarded this year to 24 states to address some of the worst polluting wells. Some estimates say the cost to close all of the abandoned wells could be several times more than the amount provided in the infrastructure law.

This story co-published in High Country News, The Lens and the Louisiana Illuminator.

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