Biden administration releases orphaned well guidance in bid to address rampant methane emissions

Biden administration releases orphaned well guidance in bid to address rampant methane emissions

The Biden administration on Thursday released its draft guidance on addressing the more than 130,000 orphaned oil wells across the country—a number the government admits reflects a massive undercounting of wells whose former operators cannot be located. The guidance includes what is required when states apply for initial grants, such as detailed budget proposals and disclosure of any lobbying activities, along with best practices like state plugging standards. In total, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act earmarks $4.7 billion to address orphan wells, with the government distributing the first $775 million in the form of large-scale grants of up to $25 million and small-scale grants of up to $5 million. States looking to receive small-scale grants can secure those funds at any time so long as they achieve their goals before Sept. 30, 2030. Large-scale grant applications are due by May 13, 2022.

Orphan wells have been a consistent problem when it comes to addressing methane emissions and have been included as a key priority in the White House’s Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan, released last November. Even the federal government admits that the problem is much larger than agencies estimate. When also taking into account abandoned wells considered unproductive but whose owners are known, that number shoots up to more than 3 million. Around 2 million of those have never been properly plugged—a process that even the National Petroleum Industry admits is an afterthought of the industry and has led to untold amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that typically harm marginalized communities the most.

The possibility of environmental justice is something Interior Secretary Deb Haaland applauded in a press release announcing the draft guidance. “We are committed to getting these funds to states and communities as quickly as possible to confront legacy pollution and long-standing environmental injustices that have been allowed to fester for far too long,” Haaland said. “With so many communities looking forward to this program, we are eager to hear from diverse voices to review and provide feedback on this draft guidance.” Those thoughts were echoed by Sierra Club Deputy Legislative Director Mahyar Sorour, who urged states interested in addressing orphaned wells to “take seriously the need to implement best practices to limit methane pollution from orphaned wells, as well as pursuing bonding reform to make sure the industry can’t continue leaving taxpayers to cover the cost of cleaning up their messes.”

“The remarkable amount of interest from states in this program makes it clear that the scale of our orphan well problem is enormous,” Sorour said. “For the wellbeing of the communities with these wells, it’s critical that DOI has stepped in to support states. But now the states need to step up and hold the industry accountable.” A public comment period about the guidance is now open and those interested in voicing their thoughts about the program can email orphanedwells@ios.doi.gov until 11:59 PT on March 30. Two presentations will be held ahead of that comment period closing: One “focused on industry and labor equities in the guidance” next Wednesday, March 23 at 2 PM ET and another on “environmental justice equities” next Thursday, March 24 at 4 PM ET. I’ll be tuning in and certainly eager to hear what experts have to say about how to equitably plug wells as well as whether the government expects to also address surface reclamation in cases in which there are additional terrain concerns.

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