CLEVELAND, Ohio – Residents of Franciscan Village complained for years about smelling gas in the courtyard of the subsidized senior-living complex in Kamm’s Corners.
The smell would be so strong that residents enjoying the flowers, benches and statue of St. Francis would have to get up and leave.
“It wasn’t constant though,” said Kay Sowul, 78, a resident of Franciscan Village for 11 years. “It was periodically.”
Still, management had Dominion Energy investigate. While the gas company believed there was a well in the vicinity, nothing could be located, said Don Heckelmoser, president and CEO of LSC Service Corp., which manages Franciscan Village.
The mystery was solved two months ago when a contractor digging up the courtyard to construct an atrium struck a well casing.
After contacting the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Cleveland Fire Department, management of Franciscan Village chose a company out of Mogadore called Moore Well Services to plug the well.
State records suggest the well had been drilled more than a century ago to extract natural gas. It had been plugged in the 1950s with a substance called fire clay, commonly used by the industry at the time, but which had cracked and shrunk over time.
Rather than wait for the state to foot the bill, thus delaying construction of the atrium and jeopardizing low-income tax credits on the project, management turned for assistance to a nonprofit organization out of Montana called the Well Done Foundation.
A market-based solution
The foundation, started by Curtis Shuck, a former oil and gas industry executive, plugs methane-leaking wells around the country using money from contributors seeking carbon credits that can offset their own greenhouse gas emissions or meet corporate goals for sustainability.
“Some just do it out of the goodness of their hearts,” said Shuck, who admits to being embarrassed by the legacy of orphan wells that his industry has left behind.
The Biden administration recently authorized $4.7 billion nationwide for the plugging of orphan wells, which are wells that have been abandoned and have no registered owner. When combined with state funds, Ohio could see up to $634 million for well plugging through 2035, according to the ODNR’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management.
What’s different about the Well Done Foundation’s approach is that no taxpayer money is needed, Shuck said.
Private donors from all over the world contribute to plugging projects, he said, “because what they love about this, what I love about it, is it’s literally gas on, gas off. So, it’s not like planting trees or some other project.”
Shuck said the market-based solution came to him in 2019 after coming across orphan wells in a wheat filed in northern Montana.
“There had to be a way that we could generate revenue someway, somehow,” he said, “and so what we did then is we developed with the American Carbon Registry the first of its kind methodology, which is essentially the rulebook for how you calculate carbon credits from orphan oil and gas wells.”
The American Carbon Registry, founded in 1996, provides the means to responsibly and transparently verify carbon offset projects that are largely voluntary.
“There’s no gun to anybody’s head, except for California,” said Shuck. The compliance market also extends to some international businesses, such as airlines.
The American Carbon Registry is still conducting a peer review of the methodology for measuring methane emissions from orphan wells with the intent of making it “as robust and user friendly as possible,” said Maris Densmore, director of engineered solutions at the registry. She said the registry hopes for approval by the end of the year.
Carbon credits can already be earned for certain projects, most notably for planting trees and conserving forests. Destroying ozone-depleting chemicals such as refrigerants and capturing methane before it can be released from mines and into the atmosphere can also earn carbon credits.
An old, old well
Information provided by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources indicates that the Franciscan Village well was drilled in 1908 to a depth of about 2,700 feet.
Earlier this month, a crew from Moore Well Services was busy boring out the well casing. Rigging nearly 70 feet high towered over the well opening as workmen lowered 30-foot sections of metal pipe into the well to clean out the fire clay and to later pump in cement to seal the well properly.
It will cost at least $90,000 to complete the job, and the largest contribution so far – $20,000 – has been provided by a Scottsdale project developer called Vital Eco, Shuck said.
A tank was placed over the well before the plugging began to test the flow and concentration of the methane. It was determined that the well was releasing 3,500 cubic feet of methane per day or 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. By comparison, an average car emits about 4 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents a year.
In the currency of carbon credits, one ton of carbon dioxide equivalents per year equals one carbon credit, but the actual number of credits a project will produce can vary because other factors are taken into consideration, Shuck said. It’s expected that the Franciscan Village well should generate about 6,800 carbon credits over a 10-year-perid, with all of them going to Vital Eco according to an agreement with the Well Done Foundation.
Shuck said the foundation is hoping others will still want to contribute to the cause.
The Well Done Foundation has only plugged 17 wells in the short time it has been in business, including the one in Cleveland so far. There are hundreds more in the pipeline, Shuck said. But with an estimated 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells across the country, of which only about one third have been plugged, the foundation alone won’t even put a dent in the problem.
Shuck said he hopes the Well Done Foundation will encourage other organizations to take the same approach “and join us in this fight.”
That could be good news for Ohio, which because of its early role in the oil and gas industry is one of the leading states for orphan wells, many of which go back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when John D. Rockefeller was in business . The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has documented 330 orphan wells in Cuyahoga County alone.
“They’re everywhere,” said Keith Moore, vice president of Moore Well Services, a family business that began about 50 years ago.
Sometimes people build around the wells not knowing they exist, he said, “or they know they’re there and they ignore them.”
As for the well at Franciscan Village, the gas leaking from the pipe was minimal by comparison, he said. “It was leaking gas, which is bad, but we’ve seen a lot worse.”