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Bipartisan Coalition Requests Funding for Plugging Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells

June 29, 2020 by Sara Wilkerson

WASHINGTON – A Coalition of Democratic and Republican House members have sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to request Congressional funding to plug “orphan” oil and gas wells across the United States. 

The letter was co-authored by Reps. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M, Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M, Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and Mike Kelly, R-Pa. 

In it, they argue that funding these long overdue environmental projects will create jobs and help get people who lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic back to work.

“This critical funding for states and tribes would create jobs for many who have lost their employment in recent months due to the crash in oil and gas demand, while simultaneously supporting urgent environmental restoration,” said the letter.

What Are Orphan Wells? 

Orphan wells are oil and gas wells that have been abandoned and have no clear owner or operator responsible for maintaining the well. Orphan wells are more likely to be abandoned due to owner bankruptcy. 

Depending on the conditions an orphan well was left in, most are considered “unplugged”, meaning that the well was not properly capped with cement, or “plugged.” 

Plugging an oil or gas well with cement is crucial in preventing harmful contamination in soil, water and air via potential leaks. The process of plugging wells is costly for operators, with fees varying depending on the geological and physical state of the well. 

Most oil and gas companies abandon wells when they run dry, or, as is the case in the current pandemic, the demand for oil and gas plummets. According to the letter, the diving demand for oil and gas has caused, “domestic producers idling their wells and, in some cases, abandoning their operations.” 

Abandoning operations of these wells not only has economic costs in terms of future clean up and jobs, but there are consequences of human health and long-term environmental costs that emerge as a result. 

The Costs of Orphan Wells 

According to the U.S Government Accountability Office, the cost of plugging a single abandoned well can range anywhere from $20,000 to $145,000, depending on the size of the well and the difficulty of the individual project. 

The letter writers are seeking $2 billion to address approximately 57,000 orphan wells that have been documented on federal, state, tribal, and private lands.

They say the funding would be particularly helpful to states like Pennsylvania and California, which have many of the orphan wells, but can’t afford to do anything about them now that their respective budgets have been stretched to the max by the coronavirus outbreak.

A 2014 study conducted in Pennsylvania concluded that methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells in the state emitted approximately 40,000 to 70,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. In 2016, the author of the Pennsylvania study, Mary Kang, concluded that this metric ton figure in Pennsylvania amounted to roughly 5-8% of the state’s human-caused emissions. 

The tackling of environmental issues associated with the abandoned wells is one of the many addressed in the bipartisan letter to Congressional leaders. 

“It’s not like they leak for one year, and then they stop,” said Kang about orphan wells after her study. “Some of these [wells] have been there maybe for 100 years. And they are going to be there for another 100 years.”

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