The Biden administration is stepping up efforts to advance environmental justice through the cleanup of toxic, legacy pollution sites, announcing a near doubling of investment this fiscal year to $64 million to plug, remediate and reclaim orphaned oil and natural gas well sites on federal lands.
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The US Interior Department considers these orphaned wells to be a serious safety hazard and significant driver of climate change as the methane they leak has a global warming potential more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. The oil and gas sector is the single largest source of methane emissions in the US, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
"Millions of Americans live within just one mile of an orphaned oil or gas well," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told reporters on a call June 8. "These are environmental hazards that jeopardize public health and safety by contaminating groundwater, emit methane which adds to the climate crisis and litters our landscape with rusted and dangerous equipment."
Interior's latest funding announcement "will empower us to continue addressing legacy pollution on public lands, which will in turn put Americans back to work in good-paying jobs," Haaland said. "It will fuel collaboration across a broad coalition of stakeholders, and it will invite communities to work towards sustainable stewardship of our nation's lands and waters."
The funding is part of the $4.7 billion the bipartisan infrastructure law allotted for orphaned well site plugging, remediation and restoration activities to help put a dent in methane emissions. Of that funding, $250 million was dedicated to cap orphan wells on public lands, including in national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, national conservation areas and federal waters.
Bureaus within the departments of Interior and Agriculture invested $33 million in these reclamation efforts on public lands last year. The new $64 million investment will expand existing projects and undertake new initiatives, Interior said.
Interior Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Laura Daniel-Davis said the new batch of funding would be used to plug and remediate 317 orphaned oil and gas wells and well sites, with projects in 14 states, including Bureau of Land Management-managed lands in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.
"As we selected the wells on this list, we considered the level and accessibility of the hazard to the public, the degree of methane emissions and the severity of the environmental impacts," Daniel-Davis said on the press call. "Taken together, we're ensuring that funds from President [Joe] Biden's bipartisan infrastructure law will have the largest impact to clean up legacy hazards and protect our water, our environment and the health and safety of local communities."
Inventory effort underway
The funding supports work on the Outer Continental Shelf through a project with Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement as well as aids inventory efforts aimed at better understanding how many orphaned wells exist on federal lands so the department can better direct future plugging operations, Daniel-Davis added.
Also on the call, Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz said tackling legacy pollution sites in national parks and wildlife refuges would "have a tangible impact on outdoor recreation assets" and "make significant progress toward conserving wildlife habitat and supporting a healthy environment for future generations."
She noted efforts by the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service over the last year to implement the new orphaned oil and gas wells cleanup program.
For instance, FWS obligated $13 million to plug 175 orphaned wells at wildlife refuges across Louisiana and Oklahoma, while the park service hired petroleum engineers and well inspectors to inventory the roughly 1,800 oil and gas wells located in 49 national parks. As part of that effort, 524 wells have been inspected to determine which are orphaned or at risk of becoming orphaned, two orphaned wells were reclaimed in Louisiana and the plugging of 20 more wells across six national parks has been initiated.