The Department of the Interior announces $33 million to clean up 277 wells spewing methane on federal lands. There are millions more

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By Ella Nilsen, CNN

Interior Department and White House officials said Wednesday they would spend $33 million to clean up 277 unused oil and gas wells on federal lands in nine states.

Wednesday’s funding allocation will be used to clean up so-called orphan sinks in national forests and national parks in California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

Funding comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law, which included $4.7 billion to clean up orphan wells across the country. More than $1 billion of this funding has already flowed to states to help them tackle the cleanup of orphan wells. States have identified more than 130,000 orphan wells across the country and have estimated that it would take about $8 billion to clean up those wells, said Laura Daniel-Davis, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for management. earth and minerals.

“These are environmental hazards that endanger public health and safety by contaminating groundwater and emitting harmful gases like methane,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Wednesday.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and scientists have said it should be a priority in efforts to tackle the climate crisis. It is also highly flammable (it is the main component of gas used to power stoves, ovens and furnaces), and high concentrations of it can displace oxygen in the air and cause blurred vision, nausea, vomiting and headaches, among others. health problems.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are approximately 3 million inactive or non-productive oil and gas wells in the country, and orphan wells are a subset of that number. Oil and gas companies are responsible for cleaning up wells that reach the end of their productive life, but when companies go bankrupt and “orphan” their wells, cleanup is left to federal and state governments.

Daniel-Davis estimated that there are about 15,000 orphan wells on federal lands; Wednesday’s funding allocation is meant to be the first tranche of $250 million to help clean up those wells.

Now that funding has been released, she said officials expect agencies to begin the process of cleaning and plugging wells immediately. Four federal offices receiving this funding will measure emissions of methane from wells – a super pollutant 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The program will require federal contractors to measure methane emissions at the beginning and end of the remediation process, to measure the effectiveness of well capping.

The Cost of Fossil Fuel Cleanup

Cleanup of abandoned wells is a large and expensive project.

Daniel Raimi, a member of Resources for the Future, a nonprofit research group focused on energy and environmental issues, said the average cost to clean a single well is $75,000, but can vary widely from $10,000. $ to over a million dollars, depending on the age and depth of the well.

“$4.7 billion should bring you [capping] somewhere around 60,000 oil and gas wells,” Raimi said. “It’s a good start, but it’s only a start.”

And Raimi said that while state and federal authorities have identified where some orphan wells are, that number is likely an undercount. There could be a million orphan wells across the country, he added.

“We think we know roughly where they are in different parts of the country, but we don’t have GPS coordinates for them or any other way to confidently identify where they are,” he said. .

Raimi said the federal government helping states clean up oil and gas wells is a “positive step, but it’s a very small step.” He noted that the bipartisan law was drafted to tie financial incentives to states reforming oil and gas laws to compel companies to clean up the mess.

“From a policy perspective, the most important thing is to reform state laws so that companies must clean up their wells at the end of their useful life,” he added. “In the long term, we don’t want all of these costs to fall on taxpayers. We want these costs to be borne by the companies to operate the wells.

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