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Dahlton Poitra, with Ham's Well Service, straps on his safety gear before scaling the workover rig in the background at an abandoned oil well site west of Antler in Bottineau County in this 2020 file photo from the Bismarck Tribune.

A bill that takes North Dakota’s Bakken Restart program and makes it national has made it out of committee and is now ready for wider debate in the U.S. Senate.

The bill, called the REGROW Act, is modeled after North Dakota’s Bakken Restart. North Dakota used $66 million of its CARES Act Funding to provide jobs to oilfield workers by remediating and plugging orphan or abandoned wells.

The REGROW Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., sets aside $4.7 billion in funds for plugging and reclaiming orphan wells. Most of the funds would go to state and private lands, while $400 million would be for tribal and public lands and $32 million would be for research, development and implementation.

Nationally, more than 100,000 oilfield workers lost jobs during the pandemic-induced downturn. The REGROW Act would help put 50,000 of them back to work again.

Cramer praised the work of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which approved the bill.

“Congress passing the REGROW Act would mean new jobs for oilfield workers, fewer environmental hazards in local communities, and more land available for production,” Cramer said. “I applaud Chairman Manchin for advancing our bill and those on the Energy Committee like Senators Hoeven, Heinrich, and Cassidy who have been supportive of this effort and recognize the need for it. As we debate the path forward on infrastructure, I urge my colleagues to support including our REGROW Act in any final package.”

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, meanwhile, has helped introduce companion legislation for the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, working with Texas Democratic Rep. Lizzie Fletcher.

Cramer and Armstrong have been working to build support for the bill, advocating for it in hearings, opinion pieces, and in national media.

The governors of at least 12 states have signed a letter endorsing the bill and urging Congress to act quickly on it. The states are New Mexico, Oklahoma, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Together the states represent 82 percent of onshore oil and gas production and 66 percent of documented orphan wells.

Abandoned wells are an enormous issue in the United States, as we have written about in previous articles about the Well Done Foundation, a non-profit born and raised in Montana by Red River Oil’s former manager Curtis Shuck.

While today most states have regulations requiring energy companies to have bonds for the cleanup and reclamation of oil wells, that was not the case prior to the 1950s. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated there are 3.2 million abandoned wells in the United States, many of them dating back to this period of time where bonding was not a requirement. State regulators meanwhile, have reported at least 56,000 orphaned wells and up to 745,943 undocumented orphaned wells.

In West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Ohio River Valley Institute estimates there are enough abandoned wells to keep oilfield workers busy for the next 15 to 20 years.

Abandoned and orphan wells release significant amounts of greenhouse gases, including methane. Plugging one reduces emissions a good 2,500 metric tons per year, Shuck has told the Williston Herald.

“Methane is like 84 times more gnarly than carbon dioxide,” Schuck has told the Williston Herald. “So when I say 2,500, that’s on the conservative side. But it is significant. It’s absolutely worth getting out there and doing.”

Shuck’s Foundation is among groups that have been talking with the Biden Administration about the problem of abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells across the nation. President Joe Biden has not only seemed to embrace the idea that plugging and reclaiming orphan or abandoned wells could and should be part of the federal climate change agenda, but that it could also be used to put oilfield workers who lost jobs during the pandemic back to work. His infrastructure proposal contained $16 billion for the purpose of plugging orphan and abandoned wells.

That money has so far survived negotiations and appears to still be part of a bipartisan infrastructure deal Republicans and Democrats have been trying to hammer out.

North Dakota, meanwhile, has extended its Bakken Restart Program, with an additional 95 wells to plug. Those are being done in 20-well batches summer using $6 million in funds allocated for that purpose during the most recent biennium. The program is expected to add around 600 jobs to the oil and gas sector.

North Dakota Director of Mineral Resources Lynn Helms has told the Williston Herald he expects to add another 50 to 100 such wells during the next year or two.

North Dakota has changed some of its regulations to reduce the number of problematic abandoned wells in the future. Among these changes, DMR now limits the number of abandoned or temporary wells allowed on a single blanket bond and can require single well bonds for them.

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