As the Environmental Defense Fund points out, over 170 years of oil and gas development “has left a massive inventory of so-called ‘orphan’ wells across the United States — oil and gas wells that are inactive, unplugged, and have no solvent owner of record.”
Why does this matter?
These wells pose significant risks to human and environmental health by leaking toxic chemicals into the air, contaminating groundwater, and emitting methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that methane emissions from over 2 million inactive, unplugged wells, of which documented orphan wells are a subset, range from a CO2 equivalent of 7-20 million metric tons per year (approximately the emissions of 2 to 5 million cars).
Despite the importance of this issue and the alarms raised by environmental activists, it was ignored by past administrations.
Until Joe Biden stepped in.
As a part of Biden’s landmark legislation, the US has begun to curb emissions by plugging old oil and gas wells. Reuters offers a good summary:
- Government sets aside $4.7 billion to stop wells leaking methane
- Many abandoned well locations are unrecorded, unknown
- Sealing them properly could create tens of thousands of jobs
For the first time, the U.S. government is giving such old wells major attention in an effort to curb environmental pollution, reduce climate-heating emissions of methane, and create green jobs.
In November, it allocated $4.7 billion to tackle the problem of the orphan wells nationally.
Already 26 states — almost every one with documented orphan wells — have indicated they intend to apply for the grants, according to the Interior Department.
There are tens of thousands of old wells on federal lands nationwide, and at least another 130,000 on state and private lands, according to department official Steven H. Feldgus.
Government officials, green groups, oil service workers and others are now expecting a stampede of action throughout the coming decade, with implications for local economies, groundwater contamination and climate change.
A federal program to plug a half-million wells could create as many as 120,000 specialized oil and gas industry jobs, according to 2020 research from Columbia University and Resources for the Future, a think tank.
As Grist explained last fall, California is working to develop this workforce systematically — and to ensure that at least some of these workers will be union affiliated.
Last year, the state legislature passed a law directing the California Workforce Development Board to launch apprenticeship programs to train new classes of well pluggers. It could become a model for skilled labor creation.
Its first pilot program is using the expertise of a Kern County well-capping company, California Legacy Well Services, which is creating a plugging curriculum to fold into existing training provided by Local 12, the International Union of Operating Engineers. As a result, union-affiliated labor will represent part of the well-plugging workforce.
Is there still more work to be done? 100%! Lots more work. But Biden did more than many people guessed could be done. He deserves a lot of credit. AND he deserves to be re-elected.
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