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These Teens Adopted an Orphaned Oil Well. Their Goal: Shut It Down.

WorldThese Teens Adopted an Orphaned Oil Well. Their Goal: Shut It Down.

As a child in Bolivia, Mateo De La Rocha told his family he wanted to work as a garbage man when he grew up. In La Paz, his home city at the time, trash piles were everywhere. In Mr. De La Rocha’s eyes, the local sanitation worker was the only person cleaning up pollution. “I didn’t really see anyone doing anything about it, apart from the garbage man,” he said.

His family later moved to the United States, and now Mr. De La Rocha is a high school senior in Cary, N.C., who has found a unique way to clean up pollution: Along with two friends, he recently raised $11,000 to plug an abandoned oil well in Ohio that was leaking gas close to a barn on a horse farm. It’s an unusually niche cause for young environmentalists to take up, but one with a potentially significant effect on global climate change.

As many as 3.9 million abandoned and aging oil and gas wells dot the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The reasons for abandonment vary, but at least 126,000 of these wells are orphans, meaning there’s no longer an owner or company that state regulators can hold responsible for them. And many of the wells leak methane, a greenhouse gas that’s nearly 30 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a period of 100 years, and even more powerful over shorter time periods.

The E.P.A. estimates that abandoned wells collectively released 303,000 metric tons of methane in 2022, roughly equivalent to how much carbon dioxide 23 gas-burning power plants might release in one year. This estimate, however, is highly uncertain.

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $4.7 billion to states, tribes and federal agencies to plugorphaned wells, but given their sheer number and the enormous geographic area they cover, these federal funds will not be enough.

“No single group is going to solve this problem,” said Andrew Govert, the program manager of a Department of Energy initiative to find undocumented orphaned wells and establish best practices for measuring their pollution. “I think it’s going to take NGOs, government, industry. It’s kind of all hands on deck.”

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