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.”
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