Pennsylvania’s landscape is riddled with abandoned oil and gas wells that were never properly shut down and sealed up, including hundreds of thousands for which the responsible parties can’t be identified, or no longer exist. Between inadequate bonding requirements for operators and a chronically underfunded remediation program, DEP is fighting an uphill battle. But private well-plugging efforts like the Well Done Foundation are stepping up to help meet the need. As founder Curtis Shuck explains, they’re also exploring innovative ways to finance the work.
Across the U.S., more than two million oil and gas wells have been abandoned without being plugged, allowing climate-changing methane gas to vent into the atmosphere unchecked.
Nearly nine thousand of those wells are in Pennsylvania, a number that’s growing by the day. And that’s just the ones we know about. The real count is likely many times higher — over half a million, according to DEP estimates.
Money from the federal bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year will make a dent. But without tougher bonding requirements on wells, there’s little to prevent operators from simply walking away from sites that are no longer profitable — meaning the accumulation of uncapped abandoned wells in Pennsylvania will likely continue to outpace even the most well-funded remediation efforts.
To make matters worse, state legislation passed last summer caps financial assurances required of conventional drillers to a fraction of the typical cost of plugging.
It’s clear that a lot of heavy lifting is still needed on the policy side. But in the meantime, what’s being done on the ground?
Outside of DEP’s well-plugging program, which has completed a little over three thousand projects in the last ten years, there are a few privately-run initiatives afoot.
One is the Well Done Foundation, a Montana-based nonprofit that funds or finances, and oversees, well-plugging projects around the country.
It was founded in 2019 by Curtis Shuck, an energy-industry veteran who draws on his oilfield experience and relationships to get plugging jobs completed, often working with local contractors.
“In July 2019, completely by accident, I happened across my first orphan well in the state of Montana, and simply couldn’t believe what I saw. It was like, for me, it was overwhelming to think that, as an industry professional, that anybody with a conscience would walk away and leave something like that behind… so, I came to find out, you know, kind of through this process that the orphan and abandoned well issue has really been everybody’s dirty little secret,” said Shuck.
PEC joined Shuck and the Well Done Foundation on a job last summer in Erie County, where Well Done was just finishing up at a site owned by the French Creek Valley Conservancy. As he explained, the foundation doesn’t just plug wells — they’re also using carbon offsets and other innovative financial tools to help meet the cost.
“So the whole notion of the carbon credit piece is to help to create an alternative funding stream that will allow us to fund more work. Because we are a nonprofit, we then can invest a hundred percent of those dollars back into the effort. We don’t need to worry about paying dividends or getting certain rates of return,” he said.
For Well Done, every well plugged is a win.
“Every one of these orphan wells is its own little ticking time bomb. Some are very large, some are not as risky, but every one of them has a potential impact to the environment of some sort… And so that’s why, again, every one of these wells is its very own celebration,” said Shuck.
Josh Raulerson (00:02):
It’s Friday, January 20th, 2023, and this is Pennsylvania Legacies, the podcast from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. I’m Josh Raulerson.
Across the U.S., more than 2 million oil and gas wells have been abandoned without being plugged, allowing climate changing methane gas and other pollutants to vent into the atmosphere unchecked. Nearly 9,000 of those wells are here in Pennsylvania, a number that’s growing by the day, and that’s just the ones we know about. The real count is likely many times higher — over half a million, in fact, according to DEP estimates. Well, money from the federal bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year will help make a dent. But without tougher bonding requirements on wells, there’s little to prevent operators from simply walking away from sites that are no longer profitable — meaning the accumulation of uncapped, abandoned wells in Pennsylvania will likely continue to outpace even the most well-funded remediation efforts.
Josh Raulerson (00:59):
To make matters worse, state legislation passed last summer caps financial assurances required of conventional drillers to just a fraction of the actual cost of plugging. So it’s clear a lot of heavy lifting is still needed on the policy and funding side, but in the meantime, what’s being done on the ground in Pennsylvania to deal with all these orphan and abandoned wells? Well, there’s DEP’s well plugging program, which due to limited funding in the past, has completed only a few thousand projects in the last 10 years. Apart from that, there’s also a few privately-run initiatives afoot.
One is the Well Done Foundation, a Montana-based nonprofit that funds or finances and overseas all kinds of well plugging projects around the country. It was founded in 2019 by Curtis Shuck, an energy industry veteran who draws on his oil field experience and relationships to get plugging jobs completed, often working with local contractors.
I caught up with Curtis on a job last summer in Erie County, where Well Done was just finishing up at a site owned by the French Creek Valley Conservancy. As he explained, the foundation doesn’t just plug wells. They’re also using carbon offsets and other innovative financial tools to help meet the cost.
Curtis Shuck (02:16):
The Well Done Foundation is a 501-c3] public Benefit Corporation that was formed in the state of Montana, and our mission is specifically to identify orphaned and abandoned wells and then plug them and restore the surface. Today we’re in Waterford, Pennsylvania, working with our partners at the French Creek Valley Conservancy. And this is a really special well for us and for them located on literally the banks of Le Boeuf Creek. And we’ve been working with this team since November of 2021, evaluating the well to make sure that it fits kind of within our criteria, working with our friends at the State Department, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to get all of the permitting paperwork in place, selecting contractors. And then I’ve actually personally been out measuring this well since November to just here in June. And so we’ve got a lot of robust data on the emission of this well, and today marks a really important milestone. We’re plugging the well and so now we can kind of move through the lifecycle and get ready for the restoration component.
Josh Raulerson (03:36):
So kind of for background, could you talk about the broader issue that, that you’re addressing both here in Pennsylvania and beyond? Why are there so many abandoned wells and what’s to be done?
Curtis Shuck (03:46):
Yeah. Gosh, you know, the, the orphan and abandoned well story is one that I had no idea about up until 2019 in July where completely by accident I happened across my first orphan well in the state of Montana, and simply couldn’t believe what I saw. It was like, for me, it was overwhelming to think that, you know, as an industry professional, that anybody with a conscience would walk away and leave something like that behind. Um, that was on July 25th of 2019 up in Shelby, Montana, about 15 miles south of the Canadian border. By the time I got back to Bozeman that night, I had learned a whole lot more about orphan wells. We’d actually had named the organization we’re obtaining, securing domain names and, you know, going on the Secretary of State site.
Curtis Shuck (04:57):
And so, come to find out, you know, kind of through this process that the orphan and abandoned well issue has really been everybody’s dirty little secret. And, you know, both from an industry perspective and a regulatory perspective. And unfortunately, what tends to happen is the landowners typically get caught in the middle. They don’t really have a lot of recourse with a split estate. So with the mineral rights being owned by somebody else other than the landowner, and so they’re sort of left holding the bag. And so what we’ve really worked towards is number one, is bringing more attention to the issue nationally and been very fortunate in the amount of interest that the, that the issue has been given. We’d sure love to say that, you know, we have some responsibility for the Biden administration embracing the problem, but of course, anyway, but what’s happened over the years is that orphan wells are sort of generated through, like attrition and how that works.
Curtis Shuck (06:12):
And by what I mean is that, you know, a well gets drilled, you know, in it’s early days and it’s robust and it’s producing and you know, it’s, it’s maybe owned by an oil major. And then after a while, the asset gets sold or transferred to a tier two player, and then eventually to a tier three player, the well then starts to decline, the production depletes. Typically where we’re working now are what are called stripper fields, which a stripper field or a stripper well is like essentially at the end of its life cycle. So not very robust production. A lot of times the cost to produce that barrel of oil is extremely high, just because so much work needs to go into keeping the thing going, uh, and without a whole lot of production. And so what has happened is, and most of the wells we work on are, you know, up to a hundred years old, like the first, well, we plugged in, Bradford, PA was drilled in the 1880s.
Curtis Shuck (07:15):
So as you can imagine, over so much time passing by and being handed down and handed down, it sort of falls into the lap of like mom and pop oil. And what happens at that point, you know, when some economic downturn occurs and the commodity price of crude oil inverts or goes very low, you know, the businesses just can’t survive any longer. And so at that point then there are no longer, uh, any responsible financially responsible parties, uh, who can or need to plug the well, so they become wards of the state. And that’s what’s happened. Now, the good news is, the good news is, is that after a little bit of this, the states, all of them are really upping their games for financial assurance to make sure that that doesn’t happen going forward. But the problem is now we’re left with about 2.15 million legacy wells across the country, and there just simply isn’t enough money.
Curtis Shuck (08:22):
And, and before the Biden administration had allocated this 4.7 billion, which is great, but certainly isn’t the silver bullet, the States really had no money. And so, you know, every state has their own individual program, and they were fighting to try to do the best they could, but we’re losing the battle. So that’s really was the driver behind the Well Done Foundation, was to come up with a market-based approach of being able to fund the plugging abandonment work that that needs to happen across the U.S.. And so, um, you know, we are obviously a nonprofit, so we’re very, uh, blessed and fortunate to have lots of corporate sponsors who help to underwrite our work. But we’ve also done, to really allow us, and the whole industry to scale up is we have sponsored the first of its kind, uh, carbon methodology or carbon credit methodology with the American Carbon Registry, then with the intent.
Curtis Shuck (09:28):
And it’s not done yet, by the way. So we’re not rolling in money by any means, but with the intent behind that is that it would create a funding stream that would help to kind of create a financial basis to plug these wells. And so we really believe that this is like a kind of an all of the above approach, uh, to be able to get this work done. The, gosh, the problem as, as you can imagine, is just overwhelming when you think about when I first started thinking about it, that that drive home from Shelby to Bozeman that night in July of 2019, it was like, oh my gosh, this is crazy. And that’s really how we landed on the one well at a time approach, because then at that point, you know, it seems like it’s manageable.
Curtis Shuck (10:15):
And what’s exciting is that every single project that we do, just like here with the French Creek Valley Conservancy and the Martha Smith, number one, is that every, every well project we do is a celebration. What’s great about this is that we can measure the gas before we plug the well for as much as six months. So we have a great understanding of what the baseline is. And as soon as we’re done plugging the well, the gas is gone. So it’s literally gas on, gas off. So what a great way to be able to show results for those of us that are maybe attention challenged like myself. Sometimes it’s nice, uh, to be able to have a program that really produces these immediate results.
Josh Raulerson (10:59):
So could you talk a bit about your background then in the Industry?
Curtis Shuck (11:01):
Sure. So, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in the oil and gas industry since the summer of 1982, where I did my first hitch in the oil patch on Alaska’s North Slope. I grew up in Anchorage. And, you know, for those of us at that time, you sort of was a bit of a rite of passage that you had to go to the slope and work. And so ever since that time, I’ve had all kinds of positions within the oil and gas industry. I spent over 20 years in public service in the ports side of things, in the state of Washington, moving refined products and developing transportation and logistics solutions for the oil and gas industry. I’ve spent time in North Dakota’s Bakken running in oil and gas services company on the drilling and fracking side. And then started consulting on the transportation component, you know, back to rail and marine transportation. And that’s literally what I was doing in the farmer’s field in Montana in July of 2019. I was actually up there to talk to them about, you know, rail options to the Pacific coast for their wheat and peas, beans and lentils when I happened again by accident to trip over my first orphan well.
Josh Raulerson (12:26):
And it was news to you at that time, even after this long career in the industry that this was such a big problem. Do you think it’s well understood now?
Curtis Shuck (12:34):
So yes, absolutely, it was like a complete shock. Like I said, you know, I’ve been across the country in lots of different fields from, you know, Texas to the Marcellus, to the Bakken, to the Alaska North Slope. I’d never seen anything like I saw that day in Montana. And so I go back to the fact that it was very much underplayed. Uh, of course, the industry was a black eye to them, like they didn’t want anything to do with it. The regulators, I mean, for them, it really didn’t show well that they had all of these orphan wells on their books. And so no, it was very much under publicized. The problem was, and sure there were folks kind of, you know, in little pockets across the country that were working on the issue.
Curtis Shuck (13:25):
Like I said, I just happened to step in it, and for me it was really an inflection point, which was I can either, like, pretend I just didn’t see that and keep on driving home, or I needed to follow my heart and actually do something. And that’s, so I’m glad that I did, you know, on any given day, I can reference it as either a blessing or a curse, I guess. You know, now it pretty much consumes my 80 hours a week. We’re working in seven states across the country. We’ve got, you know, hundreds of volunteers and people that are a part of the organization. So, you know, what an exciting time to be in this business.
Josh Raulerson (14:10):
What all goes into a project like this and who’s doing the work?
Curtis Shuck (14:13):
Sure. So the Well Done Foundation’s business strategy is to employ local oil and gas companies, service companies, and then people and for a couple of different reasons. Number one, they really are the local experts and understand not only the regulatory climate, but you know, what it takes to get around and do business in the areas. So, and it’s also great for us because we’re helping to create those local jobs. We had, you know, to start with really no intention of having a bunch of equipment and personnel that we were having to manage across. And so it’s been a really great strategy for us. And this, well, here, in fact, we’re using a local contractor, local, you know, in Pennsylvania, out of Bradford County by the name of Plants and Goodwin. And I’ve been working with Steve Plants and Luke Plants in this orphan well space actually for almost two years now. And talking about different opportunities. They’ve been very staunch advocates of bringing attention to this and getting the work done. So we’re excited to be able to launch our first project of many with them here on this project.
Josh Raulerson (15:36):
I’m interested in the, the carbon credits piece, too. Is the idea that you, would you have a revenue stream now that you can just reinvest?
Curtis Shuck (15:43):
Exactly. So the whole notion of the carbon credit piece is to help to create an alternative funding stream that will allow us to fund more work. Because we are a nonprofit, we then can invest a hundred percent of those dollars back into the effort. We don’t need to worry about paying dividends or getting certain rates of return. I mean, we always like to make sure that we’re not going inverted, but, you know, every project is different. What is interesting as we learned in this orphan well piece is not every well has enough carbon credits associated with it to be able to write the check for the project. For us, then what we do is we use a combination of carbon finance and our, kind of our nonprofit approach to be able to fund the, well, what’s important with that is, number one, we can do more work.
Curtis Shuck (16:42):
More wells qualify, if you would, to be a part of our program. And secondarily, and maybe even more importantly, is the relationships that we have with the landowners. Because oftentimes when we’re talking with landowners, they’re like, look, you know, we’ll give you access to the property, but if you plug one, you’re gonna plug ’em all right? You’re not gonna just come in here and high grade and leave me with a mess like I already have. I already have a mess. Look, if you’re here to make it better, then we’re good. And so that’s really been an important differentiator about the Well Done Foundation’s business model is the ability to use that, those carbon credits. And the one thing about carbon credits that I’ve learned is that it’s not necessarily a commodity. So one of the things that’s important about a carbon credit and that helps to set the price is what’s referred to as the charismatic story behind how the credit is generated.
Curtis Shuck (17:48):
And, you know, as I and our team were working on putting this together, I couldn’t think of a more powerful or more important charismatic story. Not that planting trees isn’t an important story or all of the other work that’s happening. For me, it, this was just really clear, you know, it’s easy for most people to connect the dots on gas, on gas off, it’s a problem. And, and now we’re taking it away. So yeah, so that’s where we’re at. You know, we’re still, you know, neck deep in this carbon credit process with the American Carbon Registry. We actually, the foundation myself, um, kind of just got impatient. So we trademarked our own version of the Carbon Credit referred to now as a climate benefit unit, a CBU. And so we just started selling them retail on our website. You know, we’ve generated almost half a million carbon offsets through our work. You know, this is our 21st well, here. And so we felt that it was important to, you know, have an opportunity to, number one, get the information out there, but then, you know, help to offset our car wash and bake sale program,
Josh Raulerson (19:05):
Who’s buying those credits?
Curtis Shuck (19:07):
You know, all kinds of really cool people, whether it’s companies or just individuals looking to offset their own footprint or their family footprint. So that’s been really encouraging to see that you know, at the end of the day, the intent of the Well Done Foundation is not to be a Carbon Credit trading outfit. We’re really focused on what we do best: on plugging orphan and abandoned wells. So, you know, as these credits become finally certified and the program, you know, gets released to the world, we’ll be working with third parties too. The good news is, and the other side of why this program is important is that this will encourage others then to get involved in this work too, because it’s all about getting the work done at the end of the day and using carbon credits as a vehicle to scale. So we’re, you know, we don’t look at as competition, honestly. We look at it as competition and feel that’s important and that our role in this industry as being an industry leader is to be able to give back through the delivery, if you would, of this carbon credit methodology.
Josh Raulerson (20:24):
And it seems like the other thing is you’ve kind of found a way around a lot of the ugly political entanglements that you might trip over otherwise, right?
Curtis Shuck (20:31):
For the Well Done Foundation, one of the approaches that we adopted early on in this is that we really need to stay on the high road. For us, it’s, you know, whether you’re a climate crusader or a climate denier, you really can’t look at this problem and think that it’s just simply not the right thing to do. And so we’re not about pointing fingers and casting shade or laying blame, we’re just about doing the work. And that’s, I think, has really helped us to kind of stay out of some of those really slippery slopes. And that’s what we hope, you know, others will do as well, is just focus on doing the work. And, you know, for me it’s been about, gosh, if we can use this as an example, that maybe inspires other people to do something similar then what an amazing, delivery item at the end of the day or a result. And so, you know, gosh, if I can go out and do this, then there’s no telling what others who are way smarter than me can do if we all just do something. And that’s really been for me, has been at the base of this is do something.
Josh Raulerson (21:49):
It’s not just about climate. We’re standing in front of this stream here that I imagine will benefit from having this well plugged.
Curtis Shuck (21:55):
A hundred percent, and we look at a project holistically. So for sure, for us, one of the things that’s key with us is the emissions and what we’re doing to help, you know, slow climate change down. But you’re absolutely right. Things like water quality, things like livability are, the social aspect of this, are really important. You know, the well we just got done with in Cleveland, Ohio was really big on the social side. I mean, it was right in the middle of a retirement complex, literally 30 feet from the nearest buildings. And so, yeah, I mean, it’s, we really have to look at each of these projects based on their merit. And this was one of the things that struck me about this project immediately. And I think that that’s why, uh, Josh and his team, uh, took me on such a walk about to get into this well at start, because you’re absolutely right.
Curtis Shuck (22:50):
Every one of these orphan wells is its own little ticking time bomb. Some are very large, some are not as risky, but every one of them has a potential impact to the environment of some sort. And this well was no exception. So realistically, this well was well over 15,000 cubic feet of gas per day as we were measuring actually much more than that. So think about what that is, that’s roughly the equivalent, you know, on an annual basis of about 1,500 to 1,600 automobiles that are coming off of the street. And so that’s a big deal. And so that’s why, again, every one of these wells is its very own celebration.