• Outdoors Outdoors

Concerns grow over old oil wells leaking at Montana national park — and officials are racing to stop them

"What's it going to take for us to wake up?"

"What's it going to take for us to wake up?"

Photo Credit: iStock

Oil and gas extraction causes huge environmental damage, from the drilling required to access these dirty fuels to the planet-warming gases they release when burned.

But even when no longer in use, former oil wells can cause harm. In Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, a site near Kintla Lake is still releasing methane despite being plugged for years.

According to Montana Public Radio, testing in 2023 revealed the gas was still leaking from the site and the plug needed an update. Now, federal funds have been released to allow the national park to prevent the further release of methane.

The Environmental Protection Agency says methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of planet-warming potential. 

Global heating exacerbates extreme weather conditions like droughts and wildfires, the latter of which Montana is all too familiar with. NBC Montana reported the state experienced 306 wildfires in 2023. 

The money for preventative work at Glacier Park has been provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is trying to reduce methane leaks on federal land. Montana Public Radio reported the department believes there are around 600 unused wells — also known as "orphan wells" — that were left abandoned before regulations came into force requiring companies to restore former drilling sites when they were no longer used for extraction.

Funding for plugging the Kintla Lake well comes after the state already received $25 million in 2022 to deal with 250 orphan wells. 

As the National Park Service's website noted, there has been a sharp rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since drilling began at Glacier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While activity there may have been short-lived, it still contributed to the high levels of CO2 we see today — as did a fire that destroyed drilling activities at Kintla Lake in the early 1900s.

In 2022, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that CO2 levels in the atmosphere were 50% higher than in the pre-industrial period. 

"Carbon dioxide is at levels our species has never experienced before — this is not new," Pieter Tans, senior scientist with the Global Monitoring Laboratory, said. "We have known about this for half a century and have failed to do anything meaningful about it. What's it going to take for us to wake up?"

Fortunately, Los Angeles is one city to take notice, banning new oil wells and phasing out existing ones.

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