Why Carbon Credits – Mission or Money?

In 2019, when the nonprofit Well Done Foundation was formed in Bozeman, MT, its founder Curtis Shuck was inspired to find a market-based solution to help address the orphaned well problem in North America following a life-changing experience in Northern Montana.

For Curtis, this quickly became a mission and a calling, and whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, a “climate crusader” or a “climate denier,” this was simply the “right thing to do.” Creating the opportunity for a new legacy in the oil and gas sector was super exciting and yet, in those early days, not many within the industry shared Curtis’ enthusiasm.

As Curtis would soon discover, orphaned wells were everyone’s dirty little secret. Neither the regulators nor the industry wanted to talk about it. At that time, public funding through the states or federal government was essentially nonexistent, and really, Well Done felt that this very expensive problem should not be foisted onto the backs of the taxpayers, since they weren’t who got us into this mess to begin with, and likewise, “Big Oil” was not to blame either, as these wells would transfer, trade and sell many times over through their lifecycle, until they finally reached their uneconomic or marginal end. The system had been broken for many decades and there was plenty of blame to go around for sure, but pointing fingers and flinging poo was not the answer and was certainly not going to get any wells plugged. So, having no idea where it would lead, Curtis began “adopting” orphan wells to plug in Northern Montana in the Fall of 2019 and set about developing ways to quantify the eliminated methane emissions and kept the focus on the high road.

In early 2020, in the throes of the unthinkable global pandemic, Curtis and the team set out to make a better way possible by introducing a carbon finance strategy to monetize the quantified methane emissions. At that time, the world wasn’t quite ready to wrap their arms around that approach. When they first approached Verra and the Gold Standard, they could not get any serious interest, since at that time the carbon world was so focused on forestry- and agriculture-based programs that the thought of industrial methane from the oil and gas industry was a bridge too far. Similarly, investment capital for a venture such as the Well Done Foundation at that time was also outrageously expensive.

When the introduction was finally made to the American Carbon Registry (ACR) in early 2020, the pieces of a very complicated puzzle began to fit together: based on the mission-driven focus of a nonprofit making a difference one well at a time, and using the proceeds from the sale of carbon credits generated by plugging orphaned wells to fund more orphaned well plugging, rather than creating profits or enhancing shareholder wealth. For the Well Done Foundation, this was and always will be about leaving things better than the way they were found, and therein lies the beneficial impact of the program. Well Done plugged their first well on Earth Day (April 22) 2020, funded by Curtis and his wife, Stacey, as the United States was fully locked down with COVID-19. Since that time, and with the generosity of corporate sponsorships, private donations, car washes and bake sales, the Well Done Team has plugged a total of 26 orphan wells in five States and is rigging up on its 27th, next week (July 18, 2023) back in Northern Montana.

Yes, there was always a concern about the reputation of the carbon marketplace for Curtis and the team, but the power of the Well Done story and the binary process of reliably quantifying methane emissions pre- and post-plugging just made sense at a level that literally anyone can easily understand. It’s gas on – gas off.

As the ACR Orphan Well Methodology was coming together, the Well Done team was very passionate about preserving the integrity of the program and the credits created thereunder, and having the methodology be actionable so that work could get done at a meaningful, yet reliable and verifiable level, knowing that the scrutiny was sure to be intense from every angle and every sector. This led to some tough dialogue between Well Done and ACR at times, as you might well imagine, but for Curtis and Well Done, it has always been about the mission!

Time passed and the ACR Methodology seemed to languish as it progressed through the comment and review periods, so Well Done created and trademarked the “Climate Benefit Unit” – or CBU as they are affectionately called – to help supplement the corporate sponsorships, private donations, car washes and bake sales. This allowed Well Done to generate revenue while also establishing a price for this product in the market.

As the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act was being developed and passed, this introduced a whole new dynamic into the orphaned well world. Thankfully, this also brought more attention to the problem and has provided states with an opportunity to get some work done. The reality, however, is that those federal dollars fall far short of being able to actually fix the problem. They are more of a “down payment” and certainly should not be relied upon to be available into the future.

Now that the ACR Methodology is approved and projects are being developed, there is sure to be an influx of players into the orphaned well space. With that influx will undoubtably come a mix of good actors and bad actors, just like in any other market. There will be scoundrels, there will be charlatans and there will be scallawags. But there will also be those who are doing the work for the right reasons and who are committed to doing the right things, regardless of margins or required rates of return.

All orphaned well carbon credits are not created equal, and you really need to perform your due diligence to confirm the origin and circumstances surrounding the project. There are many value determining factors well beyond the elimination of methane emissions that need to be considered.

As you may look at opportunities in this space, I encourage you to really check yourself. There are other ways to make a buck that come with much less risk and a lot less heartache. But if you are going to join the Well Done Foundation in the arena, then please have a clear and concise mission as your moral compass and stay true to it. This is a team sport, and Well Done can help you avoid some pitfalls along the way. Well Done can also help with dialing in your methane quantification programs, so that your data, the life blood of the ACR Methodology, is rock solid.

Let’s work together to make a real difference #onewellatatime!

The Well Done Foundation www.welldonefoundation.org does not trade its carbon credits openly as a commodity. They are specifically reserved for B-to-B transaction with companies and organizations who are going to retire them against their own Scope 1, 2 & 3 emissions, such as Crescent Midstream and others, who align with the mission of Well Done.