plugging orphaned and abandoned wells

A rainbow forms over a recently plugged and abandoned well in Montana. 

Sandwiched in the bipartisan infrastructure bill’s numerous energy priorities was a provision, offered by Sen. Kevin Cramer and New Mexico’s Democratic Senator Ben Lujan, that is modeled after North Dakota’s Bakken Restart Program.

During the pandemic, North Dakota used $66 million of its CARES Act funds to keep oil and gas workers employed plugging and reclaiming orphaned and abandoned wells. The REGROW Act similarly set aside $4.7 billion in funds for the same purpose.

“The REGROW Act is a pro-jobs and pro-natural resources piece of legislation that would put unemployed oilfield workers back on the job where they can use their skillsets to prevent environmental hazards and make the land in their communities productive again,” said Senator Cramer. “North Dakota showed the nation how to create an orphaned wells remediation program, and now the federal legislation built on our state’s innovative thinking is one step closer to becoming law. I urge the House of Representatives to move on this legislation without delay.”

Most of the REGROW funds would go to state and private lands, but about $250 million would be reserved for the Bureau of Land Management and $150 million for tribal lands. There’s also $32 million for related research, development, and implementation.

Around 100,000 oilfield workers lost their jobs during the pandemic-induced downturn. REGROW puts about half of those individuals back to work.

Abandoned wells are an enormous issue in the United States. Today, many states have regulations requiring energy companies to have bonds for cleanup and reclamation of oil wells, this was not the case prior to the 1950s. The EPA has estimated there are 3.2 million abandoned wells in the nation, most of them dating back to that period of time. State regulators, meanwhile have reported at least 56,000 orphaned wells and up to 745,943 undocumented orphaned wells.

Some experts have estimated there are enough abandoned oil wells to keep oil and gas workers employed for at least two decades.

Abandoned or orphaned wells can release significant amounts of greenhouse gases, including methane, which is more intense than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming. Each plugged well will reduce those emissions by a good 2,500 metric tons per year, according to an estimate from Well Done Founder Curtis Shuck, whose nonprofit has been plugging abandoned wells in Montana and other states.

The REGROW Act attracted a broad base of support. Governors of 12 states signing a letter urging Congress to move the legislation forward. The states included New Mexico, Oklahoma, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming, which together represent 82 percent of onshore oil and gas production and 66 percent of documented orphan wells.

Several state officials have also applauded the measures including North Dakota Director of Mineral Resources Department Lynn Helms.

“I applaud Senator Cramer’s work to include the REGROW Act in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that passed the US Senate,” Helms said. “This investment in the environment and in skilled oil and gas workers will provide a resource for states with idle and orphaned wells to address a growing concern while at the same time encouraging those states to review their existing regulatory framework and find solutions to prevent the concern from growing.”

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