Interior reveals plans for cleaning up orphan wells

The Department of the Interior has signed an agreement with several other federal agencies to organize its nationwide effort to clean up orphan oil and gas wells.

Congress spent a historic $4.7 billion to plug abandoned wells on federal, tribal and private lands when it passed the bipartisan infrastructure package in November.

The act directs the Interior to take the lead in implementing the program on public lands and distributing funds to states and tribes.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by Undersecretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau last week and made public today, also details the agency’s planned collaboration with the departments of Energy and Agriculture, as well as with the EPA and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said orphan well efforts will help reduce “highly polluting” sources of methane.

“Plugging in unplugged oil and gas wells is a win-win situation, helping to revitalize rural economies and providing the fossil fuel workers who have powered our country for more than a century with the opportunity to land jobs that match the skills who will protect the health of their communities,” she said in a statement.

The memorandum of understanding signed last week creates a leadership team to provide high-level direction, decide on funding, and prepare annual reports on orphan well cleanup efforts to Congress. The team will consist of the five Assistant Secretaries of the Interior, the Director of the Bureau of Land Management and the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at USDA.

Most orphan well cleanup efforts will be based at BLM, an interior agency that oversees its oil and gas program.

BLM will lead a technical working group responsible for managing the orphan well program on federal lands, classifying orphan wells for cleanup operations, and developing a way to track and measure methane pollution from abandoned wells. It will also rely on experts from the US Geological Survey, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the EPA and the DOE.

The group is responsible for making recommendations to the management team, in accordance with the memorandum of understanding.

On state and tribal lands, the MOU notes that the Interior’s Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance leads the deployment of funding.

Home Secretary Deb Haaland said making “critical investments” in oil and gas cleanup will require a “whole of government approach”.

“I have seen with my own eyes how orphan oil and gas wells left behind by extractive industries lead to dangerous pollution, water contamination and security risks to our communities,” she said. said in a statement. “I am proud to join our sister agencies in this effort.”

Almost all states with documented orphan wells have indicated they will seek federal funds, according to the Interior. Preliminary reports from these State Expressions of Interest place the number of documented orphan wells at more than double previous estimates (E&E News PM, January 5).

The EPA has estimated that the number of unknown orphan wells across the country could number in the millions.

Betty K. Park