It’s Time to Address Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells

We can put Americans back to work, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigate environmental degradation.

As Congress debates the scale and scope of a national infrastructure package, there is a unique opportunity to enact bipartisan legislation that is good for displaced energy industry workers, the rural economies they support, as well as the climate and wildlife habitat. Congress must advance legislation that address the staggering number of so-called “orphaned” oil and gas wells across the country.

There are at least tens of thousands, and perhaps millions, of these wells throughout the United States. Legacies of the boom-and-bust cycles in fossil fuel development date to the earliest oil wells in Pennsylvania and Texas, Generally speaking, orphans are abandoned wells that are no longer in active production but have not been plugged by their operators, many of whom are no longer in business.  Many of these wells continually pollute the air and water while leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas with at least 25 times the heat-trapping power as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Because methane emissions have such an outsized impact, addressing and eliminating them as soon as possible will be critical to meeting our climate goals. Plugging these wells and restoring the surrounding ecosystem will provide benefits to people and birds for decades to come.

There are a number of provisions that must be included in legislation to address orphaned wells. First and foremost, it should prioritize high-emitting wells, especially those in communities that have historically borne the brunt of air and water pollution from energy development. There should be robust funding for both well cleanup and site remediation. The legislation should put Americans to work quickly, with a focus on hiring displaced energy sector workers and people from marginalized groups, and provide sufficient funding to keep them employed for multiple years.

Because these wells have been abandoned over time, there is no complete set of information about how many unplugged wells dot our landscape, or where they are. Legislation should use existing information — like what’s available for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska — and be forward-looking.  It should include a formal census of abandoned wells, transparent means to track and monitor them, and a mechanism for strengthening bonding requirements—financial guarantees that operators will be able to plug and remediate well sites—for new oil and gas wells to prevent this issue from bubbling up in the future.

There are abandoned wells in over half the states, and many are on federal, tribal, and state lands. The opportunity to restore broad swaths of degraded wildlife habitat and put some of those acres to productive use—while creating tens of thousands of jobs—has received some bipartisan support in Congress. The REGROW Act from Senators Luján (D-NM) and Cramer (R-ND) provides an excellent foundation on which to build comprehensive legislation. It would provide up to $4.3 billion in grants to states for orphaned well cleanup on state and private lands, along with smaller grants for wells on federal and Tribal lands. Funds would start flowing shortly after enactment, and states would be rewarded for strengthening regulations that would reduce the future burden of orphaned wells.

Audubon supports the REGROW Act because of those provisions, but we urge leadership in both the House and Senate to assemble the strongest legislation possible by borrowing provisions from other proposals to supplement REGROW. For example, Rep. Leger Fernández (D-NM) has introduced legislation titled the “Orphaned Well Cleanup and Jobs Act of 2021” that would authorize a higher level of spending than Sens. Luján and Cramer ($7.25 billion in total), would spend more to locate wells abandoned that aren’t on any maps, and would increase minimum bonding requirements for drilling on federal lands. And Sen. Bennet (D-CO) introduced legislation last year that would establish standards for well cleanup and increase accountability for companies that wish to drill for oil or gas on public lands. Increasing the amount of funding in the REGROW Act, and maintaining  incentives for state-level action while establishing federal standards and bonding requirements, would be the best of all worlds.

Of course, we know that achieving bipartisan consensus on any issue is difficult these days. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we recognize that we need to get started on cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells across the country as soon as possible. Time is not on our side in combating the climate crisis, so common-sense solutions like these are critical if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.