Biden administration to give states $1.15 billion to plug orphaned wells, which leak planet-warming methane

Jan 31, 2022

The White House announced it will send $1.15 billion to states to clean up thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells that leak the powerful planet-warming gas.

‘It’s a pretty big problem that’s flown under the radar for a long time,’ one environmental advocate says.


The White House on Monday announced new steps to help curb emissions of methane, saying it will send $1.15 billion to states to clean up thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells that leak the powerful planet-warming gas.


The Biden administration also outlined plans to enforce requirements for pipeline operators to minimize methane leaks, undertake research to reduce methane emissions from beef and dairy systems, and form an interagency working group to measure and report greenhouse gases around the nation.


Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement that the new funding “is enabling us to confront the legacy pollution and long-standing environmental injustices” that have long plagued vulnerable communities. “This is good for our climate, for the health of our communities, and for American workers,” Haaland said.


Tens of thousands of abandoned wells dot the country in places where the oil and gas companies or individual owners went out of business, or are otherwise no longer responsible for their cleanup.


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The Interior Department reported earlier this month that there are 130,000 documented abandoned wells across the country. And an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund and McGill University found that about 9 million people in the United States live within a mile of an orphaned well. As recently as 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the number of wells could actually be as high as 2 million to 3 million.


“Some might be relatively harmless, and some might be quite dangerous,” said Mary Kang, a researcher at McGill University in Canada who has long studied the problem. The wells can emit a range of gases, she said, including methane, which is the primary component of natural gas. In its first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane has more than 80 times the warming potential than that of carbon dioxide.


“It’s a pretty big problem that’s flown under the radar for a long time,” said Adam Peltz, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund who also worked on the analysis. He called the White House’s move “a down payment on this problem.”


The $1.15 billion announced Monday is the first tranche of allotments from the $4.7 billion that Congress approved for orphaned well cleanup as part of the fall’s bipartisan infrastructure package. That package also included more than $11 billion in funding for abandoned mine reclamation and $1 billion for modernizing natural gas pipelines, among other measures.

The funds will go to the 26 states that submitted notices of intent to the Interior Department late last year. The allocations range from about $25 million for Alabama, up to $107 million for Texas. More will be spent in the coming months and years as part of grants to states.


“Even if there was more money right this second, the states would be hard-pressed to spend it effectively,” said Peltz, who applauded the move. He did note, though, that lawmakers will need to revisit the funding amounts as more orphaned wells are identified.

Along with state funding, the White House also announced Monday an interagency working group to better monitor, report and verify the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.


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The Biden administration was integral to the creation last year of the Global Methane Pledge, an effort that seeks to ensure a 30 percent cut in methane emissions by 2030. More than 100 nations have signed the pledge and in the fall, the White House unveiled a far-reaching set of domestic policies aimed at cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.


Scientists have said that reducing methane is one of the most practical — and one of the quickest — ways to slow Earth’s warming and lessen the worsening impacts of climate change over the next several decades.


“We welcome the administration’s efforts to address orphaned wells,” Bethany Williams, spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. The organization published a new standard last year related to well remediation and the cement plugs used to close the wells. Safety and environmental protection are top priorities for our industry,” she said.

Robert Howarth, a biogeochemist and ecosystem science professor at Cornell University who has studied methane leaks, called cleaning up orphaned wells an “easy political win” for the Biden administration.


“Who could argue that we shouldn’t be cleaning up orphaned wells? And it doesn’t cost the industry anything,” he said. “[But] it doesn’t go to the heart of what we really need to do if we’re going to solve the methane monster.” The bigger challenge, Peltz said, is preventing wells from becoming abandoned in the first place or ensuring that companies set aside money to deal with possible issues that might arise. And, he added, methane emissions from natural gas transmission and other sectors are even larger contributors to climate change.

“Meanwhile,” Howarth said, “we’re stuck paying for past mistakes.”


Credit: The Washington Post

Anna Phillips and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.