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Dahlton Poitra, with Ham's Well Service, straps on safety gear before scaling the workover rig in the background at an abandoned oil well site west of Antler in Bottineau County in this file 2020 photo. North Dakota used some of its federal coronavirus relief aid to plug 400 nonproducing oil field wells and reclaim approximately 2,000 acres to farmland as part of its Bakken Restart program.

Among the proposals floating around at the nation’s capitol right now for dealing with the nation’s orphaned well problem is one from U.S. Senators Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. and Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M. that is attracting support from across the aisles.

The REGROW Act follows on the heels of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, which includes $16 billion to reclaim orphaned or abandoned wells.

It’s an idea that would do double duty, Cramer said.

“While thousands of the nation’s oilfield workers are out of a job, our country has over fifty thousand abandoned oil and gas wells with no one responsible for their cleanup,” Cramer said. “As a top energy and agricultural producer, North Dakota excels at prioritizing the reclamation of these orphaned wells, which keeps people employed, reduces environmental hazards and public health risks, and makes previously unusable land productive again.”

State regulators have identified at least 56,000 abandoned oil and gas wells with no responsible party for their cleanup. These are known as “orphaned” wells.

The Environmental Protection Agency meanwhile estimates there are 3.2 million abandoned wells in the United States, including up to 745,943 undocumented orphaned wells.

It’s a problem that’s likely to grow. Bankruptcies have ticked up with the recent COVID-19 induced downturn that included a price war on top. That will likely lead eventually to more abandoned wells to add to the list.

Many abandoned wells are on private land, but some are also on federal and tribal lands.

Curtis Schuck with the Well Done Foundation, a Bakken-born nonprofit that has been plugging abandoned and orphaned wells in Montana, estimates that each of these wells is releasing on average 2500 metric tons of methane.

State and federal agencies have generally had only limited resources to address the problem, but, during the pandemic North Dakota used $66 million of its CARES Act money to plug and reclaim abandoned wells as part of a jobs program. The effort put more than 600 oilfield workers back in the field, helping the Bakken retain skilled workers for a quicker eventual recovery.

REGROW would allocate $4.275 billion for orphaned well cleanup on state and private land, and $400 million for cleanup on public and tribal lands. It would also include $32 million for related research, development and implementation.

North Dakota energy leaders praised the legislation.

“It is imperative we act as good stewards of the environment by plugging orphaned wells across the country, and I’m pleased to see Senators Cramer and Luján introduce legislation to help us do so,” said Kathleen Neset. “Neset Consulting Service, working with the North Dakota Industrial Commission, completed a highly successful project of plugging 63 orphaned wells and reclaiming 8 well sites back to farmland in the Williston Basin late last year. Each well totaled 99 direct jobs which helped prevent people from being laid off during this downturn. We are ready and willing to help finish the job across the country.”

Ron Ness, with the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the model proved very beneficial to the state at a difficult time.

“Expanding this model would provide great benefits to states with abandoned wells, providing assistance to address reclamation needs while also putting people to work,” he said. “We thank Senator Cramer for his efforts and look forward to seeing this bill move through Congress.

Lynn Helms, North Dakota Department of Minerals director, meanwhile praised the bill from a regulatory standpoint.

“I appreciate Senator Cramer introducing the REGROW Act to provide a resource for states like North Dakota by bringing federal support to a growing concern and by keeping skilled workers on the job and off unemployment,” he said. ““This act also encourages states to review their existing regulatory framework and seek solutions to prevent the problem from growing.”

But it wasn’t only North Dakota energy leaders singing the bill’s praises. Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund for example had this to say.

“EDF applauds Senators Luján and Cramer for introducing a bipartisan bill that will create jobs and protect local communities from air, water and climate pollution from leaky orphan wells. Over 100,000 oil and gas workers have lost their jobs in the past year and this effort will put people back to work while creating a healthier environment,” she said. “This bill will ensure every documented orphan well in the U.S. is plugged, help identify and catalogue the hundreds of thousands of other improperly abandoned wells across the country and make sure when wells are plugged, they are plugged properly. This is an important piece of the overarching reforms – including reforms to bonding and other policies that prevent wells from becoming orphaned in the future – needed to reduce the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry.”

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