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Sen. Michael Bennet seeks to clean up orphaned wells

Environmental experts praise bills for increased accountability
An abandoned well near Red Mesa, 30 miles southwest of Durango, in 2017. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has reintroduced legislation to clean up abandoned, or orphaned, gas and oil wells on federal, state and tribal lands, and another bill to change bonding requirements at the federal level to ensure companies shoulder future cleanups.

The two bills would expand opportunities for local input in lease sales on public lands and include local governments and citizens in public land decisions.

According to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, there are as few as 56,600 undocumented orphaned well sites across the United States or as many as 746,000.

“This pair of bills would restore balance to our public lands by holding all companies to a high standard and improving the lease sale process to increase transparency and consider local input,” Bennet said in an email to The Durango Herald. “At the same time, we’ve proposed a major investment to plug and remediate orphaned wells across our country, which will cut powerful methane pollution while creating good paying jobs. Together, these proposals chart a path forward that is good for our climate and our economy in Colorado.”

Bob Deans, director of strategic engagement at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the bill tackles accountability, takes a step toward public oversight and includes taxpayers in land decisions.

Orphaned wells pose significant harm to communities, Deans said. Many gas and oil wells are undocumented, he said.

Wells improperly capped can leak natural gas and other pollutants into nearby aquifers, he said, which can contaminate groundwater used for drinking and irrigation. Orphaned wells can also leak gases into the air like methane, which is more than 80 times more powerful over 20 years as an agent of global warming than carbon dioxide, Deans said.

The proposed bills would also expand job opportunities in local communities for welders, truck drivers and others, Deans said. President Joe Biden included funding for orphaned well cleanup in the American Jobs Plan.

“These are good-paying jobs,” Deans said. “And at a time when we're still trying to recover from this horrendous pandemic with more than 9 million Americans still out of work, that’s a very important piece of this.”

Jessica Goad, deputy director of Conservation Colorado, praised Bennet for reintroducing the legislation.

“Dangerous and outdated federal oil and gas rules are devastating our climate, public lands and communities,” she said in an email to the Herald. “We thank Sen. Bennet for introducing these bills that would give Coloradans a voice to shape oil and gas decisions on public lands and establish strong clean-up standards for orphaned wells while creating family-supporting jobs.”

Colorado county commissioners and nonprofit leaders commended Bennet for reintroducing the bills, including San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper.

"The federal pause on oil and gas extraction on public lands gives us an opportunity to approve much-needed reasonable reform,” she said. “These are common sense, reasonable reform measures that would allow the industry to continue operating on public lands, while protecting public health, the environment and our local Western Slope economies that rely on multiple uses of our public lands.”

Kaela Roeder is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a 2021 graduate of American University in Washington, D.C.

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