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Feds tap $33 million to plug orphaned wells on public lands

 Idle well in Wyoming.
Storms, Samantha J
BLM flickr, Caitlin Heryford
Idle well in Wyoming.

The Interior Department on Wednesday announced another step in its efforts to address orphaned oil and gas wells.

The Biden administration is tapping $33 million from the new infrastructure law to plug and clean up at least 277 high-priority polluting wells on federal public lands in nine states. These wells are in national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands, including the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah and Bureau of Land Management lands near Moab.

The funds follow the $1.1 billion the Interior Department allocated for states to clean up orphaned wells earlier this year, part of a $4.7 billion total federal commitment to addressing the problem.

“Millions of Americans live within a mile of hundreds of thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells,” Laura Daniel-Davis, the agency's principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals, said in a release. “These wells jeopardize public health and safety.”

Daniel-Davis estimates there are about 15,000 such wells on federal lands. They can seep toxic chemicals, spout pollutants like methane, and contaminate water.

“As someone who was born and raised in an oil and gas state, I can say that these abandoned, orphaned oil and gas wells are a huge problem,” said Mitch Landrieu, Biden's infrastructure coordinator and the former mayor of New Orleans. “We’re just beginning to learn the scope and scale because states are now finally counting them.”

Daniel-Davis says wells were deemed high-priority through a variety of variables, including the locations of multiple polluting wells, impacts of legacy pollution on communities of color, and their environmental and human health impacts.

The funds are the first allotment of $250 million to clean up orphaned wells on federal public land with more to be dispersed in fiscal year 2023.

Agencies doing the work will measure methane levels before and after plugging the wells, and the Interior Department will create a database to catalog the process.

Research is mounting on the toll of oil and gas infrastructure – both orphaned and active – on public health, contributing to tensions across the Mountain West where drilling and residential development increasingly collide. A map released this week by Earthworks, a group fighting the negative impacts of mineral and energy development, suggests that nearly 500,000 people in the Mountain West live within a half-mile of active oil and gas wells, compressors and processors.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson
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