Climate change: Millions of disused oil wells in US are pumping out methane - what's being done?

ITV News US Correspondent Emma Murphy visits a disused oilfield in Montana, western US, to see how abandoned oil wells are fuelling environmental catastrophe and what is being done to try and stop it

An estimated three million abandoned oil wells in the United States are pumping out staggering quantities of methane into the atmosphere, which in turn heats up the globe and fuels our climate crisis.

In a country challenged by rising temperatures, wildfires and droughts, authorities are racing to cap up the millions of wells - which were abandoned when the quest for oil and gas moved on.

To put things into perspective, one oil well could emit as much as 1,000 cars' worth of greenhouse gas over a year.

Flames consume a home in Plumas County in California. Credit: Noah Berger/AP

Methane is a huge problem, not only because of its potent smell, but also because of its ability to trap heat. And levels of methane in the atmosphere are estimated to be at their highest for 800,000 years.

Livestock farming is one massive producer of methane. But so is drilling for oil and gas.

To stop these oil wells from polluting our atmosphere, teams drill down more than 1,500 feet. They pour cement in and then a gel that solidifies, capturing any excess methane, that is then topped off with more cement.

ITV News US Correspondent Emma Murphy writes:

Curtis Shuck says he’s not out to atone for a life spent in gas and oil but he is trying to clean up after the industry he’s been in for five decades.

“You should leave places in a better state than when you found them. That’s not happened here,” he tells me.

It’s initially hard to believe. To drive through Montana is to drive through some of America’s most beautiful prairies, beneath some of its most beautiful mountains and through some of its most profitable land. Everything about the place says clean air, clean living and environmental respect.

Dotted across the rolling fields are the nodding donkeys, some dating back almost a century, literally a nod to the oil and gas which brought the United States such affluence.

But it’s the wells beneath the rigs that are the problem. “Orphaned”, in other words no longer anyone’s responsibility, they are quietly pumping out methane equivalent to thousands of cars revving around these green fields. They aren’t destroying the land in the same way but every well is doing it’s bit to destroy the atmosphere.

Methane is a potent gas, much more than the much discussed carbon dioxide, because it traps heat. In a warming climate a record breaking rise in methane levels cannot make for good news.

So that’s why Curtis Shuck launched his Well Done Foundation. Not to solve the problem but to reduce it one well at a time. Now he and teams of roughnecks who have drilled all their lives are part of the effort to tidy up after those who went before in the hope of leaving something better for those who will come after.

Scientists believe that by reducing emissions of methane, we could possibly reduce temperatures across the world, and potentially bring about change in our lifetimes.

The world's largest ever report into climate change, released on Monday by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has warned that without rapid and large-scale cuts to greenhouse gas pollution, limiting warming to 1.5C - the target set by countries in the Paris climate treaty - will be beyond reach.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres described the report as a “code red for humanity”.

Meanwhile, wildfires in Greece have burned for the seventh day as ferocious blazes spread through countries like Italy, Siberia and the United States.