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The connection between jobs and addressing orphan oil and gas wells

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  • Nov 17, 2020

By Elgie Holstein

All across the country right now, there are tens of thousands of officially documented “orphan” oil and gas wells creating environmental hazards for their communities. These are wells that the oil and gas industry walked away from because they became uneconomic over time. Rather than properly sealing them, they left state and federal taxpayers holding the bag. These wells can be big sources of air, water and climate pollution if left unaddressed.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions more of these inactive, unplugged wells that need to be addressed. This is not to mention the potential for adding hundreds of thousands of currently active wells to the orphan well inventory as oil and gas producers struggle to survive the downturn in petroleum prices.

Luckily, efforts are underway in Congress and within the presidential transition plan to address these orphan wells. In his economic plan, President-elect Joe Biden laid out his vision for a cleaner and healthier future.

When Biden takes over the presidency in January, his top priority will be to rebuild and rethink our economy, including investing in clean energy solutions and plugging and remediating abandoned and orphaned wells across the country. These wells have long been deserted and no longer produce oil and gas, yet they still emit methane, pollute our groundwater and pose a risk to public health. Both of these policies — clean energy and orphan well plugging — are good for the environment and will create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs. It’s a win-win.

Biden actively talked on the campaign trail about the good-paying jobs these commonsense policies will create. While clean energy is a common theme that the Biden-Harris campaign highlighted on the trial, orphaned wells got the spotlight in prime time at the ABC town hall on October 15th. At that town hall, Biden noted that “there are well over 100,000 wells that are left uncapped” in the Pennsylvania region alone. And he would create jobs, saying, “We could hire 128,000 of these people who are working in the industry to cap these wells and get a good salary doing it now.”

But these wells aren’t just in Pennsylvania. There are over 57,000 documented orphan wells in addition to hundreds of thousands of undocumented orphan wells across the country. Twelve states have over 1,000 documented orphan wells each — California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming — and federal funding for cleanup of these orphan wells would inject tens to hundreds of millions of dollars directly into each of these states’ economies.

The President-elect is right, plugging these wells gives us the opportunity to create new jobs in the middle of a pandemic, particularly for out-of-work oilfield workers. All of this could lead to 120,000 to 500,000 good-paying jobs, according to a paper published in the Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. In fact, the Biden-Harris transition plan includes a proposal to create “250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hard rock and uranium mines.”

It’s not just in the Biden plan — the issue of orphaned and abandoned wells is picking up steam on Capitol Hill as well, with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet introducing legislation in September addressing this very issue as a part of comprehensive oil and gas reforms. His legislation would provide funding for cleaning up abandoned or orphaned oil and gas wells with a focus on public lands. Orphan well cleanup is a bipartisan issue, and we’re hearing more and more from offices on both sides of the aisle that want to see this issue addressed in legislation. This commonsense policy should be included in any job creating stimulus package that Congress passes over the next few months.

Plugging and remediating abandoned or orphaned wells is a winning issue across the country and should be a part of comprehensive oil and gas policy fixes along with bonding reform for the Biden administration to ensure that when wells are abandoned in the future, there is money set aside to seal them properly. Now with President-elect Biden, we know that it will be one of the many tools he uses to accomplish the goals of rebuilding our economy, putting people back to work and protecting our environment.

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