Press Release

Orphaned well proposals address growing public lands crisis

Oil and gas wells on public lands

WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

Sen. Bennet calls for reforms to address orphaned oil and gas wells

The legislation will also provide a path to cleaning up the nationwide threat to communities from orphaned wells.

*Please find the full-text of the bills here*

Today, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced two bills -- the Oil and Gas Bonding Reform and Orphaned Well Remediation Act and the Public Engagement Opportunity on Public Lands Exploration (PEOPLE) Act of 2020 -- to help reform the nation’s dangerously antiquated oil and gas leasing system.

In the last few months, the problem of oil and gas companies leaving behind “orphaned” oil and gas wells has turned into a full-blown crisis that threatens to cost taxpayers millions in clean-up costs. Across the country, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission recently reported that there are 57,000 confirmed orphaned wells and as many as 750,000 additional unconfirmed orphan wells, including several hundred in Colorado. Oil and gas companies are required to put down a bond to fund clean-up costs in the event they go bankrupt -- but federal bonding minimum rates have not been updated since the 1950s and 60s, meaning orphaned wells frequently leave behind a toxic threat to the environment and public health and a massive clean-up bill that falls to the taxpayer. It is estimated that at least 84 percent of existing bonds for wells on federal lands are insufficient, potentially leaving taxpayers on the hook for several hundred million dollars in clean-up costs, if not more. With a wave of bankruptcies resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic -- including Whiting Petroleum and Ursa in Colorado -- this crisis will likely get worse without action.

Senator Bennet’s bill tackles this crisis on two fronts. His legislation protects taxpayers by updating bonding rates to guarantee companies put down a bond that meets the real, current cost of clean-up. In addition, the bill establishes an orphaned well clean-up fund to handle the short-term crisis. This fund ensures existing orphaned wells are cleaned up now and creates jobs for displaced oil workers in the process.

The administration’s “energy dominance” agenda has routinely moved to cut the public out of local land management decisions while opening our public lands to oil and gas development. In January 2018, the Bureau of Land Management issued Instruction Memorandum (IM) 2018-034 that overturned prior oil and gas leasing reforms which ensured careful consideration of meaningful public input in energy development decisions on public lands. Though some of that IM was enjoined, the guidance curtailing public input is still being used to lease parcels in communities, sacred lands, wildlife habitat, and recreational areas across the West. Further continuing on a path to silence public input and push for more oil and gas development in our national forests and grasslands, the US Forest Service recently issued a new proposed rule that would cut the public out of the process that decides whether and how lands will be opened to oil and gas drilling. 

Senator Bennet’s PEOPLE Act would overhaul the public participation process for oil and gas leasing on federal lands because the current system prioritizes the fossil fuel industry rather than the public and communities near oil and gas leasing and drilling sites. This legislation creates new standards to ensure robust public participation and proper Tribal consultation in land management decisions. 

Below are statements from leading conservation organizations highlighting the urgent need for these crucial pieces of legislation.

“As the pandemic-induced oil glut continues, we’re seeing in real time how the oil and gas bonding program leaves communities holding the bag on well cleanup costs,” said Kate Kelly, Public Lands Director at the Center for American Progress. “This bill provides fundamental reforms to ensure that oil and gas corporations - not the American taxpayer - shoulder the true cost of doing business on public lands, while also providing key resources to put people back to work to address the toxic legacy of orphan wells.”

"Orphan oil and gas wells are a threat to our already stressed water supplies - cleaning them up is key to our transition off of fossil fuels,” said Andrew Grinberg, National Campaigns Special Projects Manager at Clean Water Action. “Clean Water Action supports providing funds to state and federal agencies to stop contamination, coupled reforms to prevent oil and gas companies from walking away from their polluting assets in the future. We applaud Senator Bennet for his leadership and encourage Congress to pass this bill immediately." 

“The oil and gas industry worked for decades to silence people's voices as lands were opened up for more drilling, more dangerous pollution, and more taxpayers left behind to foot the bill for their irresponsibility. Senator Bennet's Public Engagement Opportunity on Public Lands Exploration Act of 2020 and the Onshore Oil and Gas Orphaned Well Remediation and Reclamation Bonding Reform Act of 2020 would help hold polluters accountable for the damage they cause,” said Marissa Knodel, Legislative Counsel at Earthjustice. “These proposals would ensure that the people have a say in land management decisions, clean up orphaned wells, and strengthen federal bonding requirements. Reforms like these can reduce climate pollution and ensure that companies responsible for orphaned wells pay to clean up their mess.”

“We applaud Senator Bennet’s leadership tackling two important policies perfectly suited for the moment. The COVID pandemic and the Administration’s energy “dominance” agenda have left many unemployed and exposed some of our country’s deep structural inequities,” said Lauren Pagel, Policy Director at Earthworks. “The result is a financially shaky oil and gas industry stranding more assets while running roughshod over landowner rights. Mr. Bennet’s bills put people back to work cleaning up orphaned wells and help deliver fairness, responsiveness, and transparency to landowners impacted by oil and gas drilling.”

“Orphaned wells expose Latino communities and families living nearby to serious health risks,” said Ángel Peña of Green Latinos. “They are known to pollute groundwater, leak methane and toxic gases, and endanger wildlife. We applaud both of Senator Bennet’s bills, which would not only address this growing crisis right now and for the future, but also prioritize the communities and families that depend on these public lands for enjoyment, recreation, cultural heritage and historical preservation, and ensure all of our voices are heard.”

“Our communities rely on healthy rivers and streams, clean air, and rich wildlife habitats so that we can continue to enjoy these special places for recreation and centuries-old cultural traditions that depend on our public lands,” said Camilla Simon, Executive Director of Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO). “But our nation’s outdated federal oil and gas system is allowing oil and gas companies that declare bankruptcy to skip town and leave behind toxic well sites that threaten the outdoors and our health. Thankfully, Senator Bennet has introduced two crucial bills that will reform our current leasing system to hold companies accountable for cleaning up their messes and ensure the voice of every community is heard in the land management process.”

“Senator Bennet’s bills address what has become an emergency across the nation,” said Nada Culver, Vice President of Public Lands and Senior Counsel for the National Audubon Society. “Thousands of orphaned drill sites risk birds and other wildlife, while polluting the air and water, yet we cannot hold the corporations that profited from that oil and gas accountable. It should be easier for the public to be informed and weigh in before public lands are turned over to oil and gas companies, and harder for companies to walk away with pocketsful of profit while leaving us to deal with the mess they leave behind. These bills will help put people back to work restoring public lands, protect the public’s say in how they are managed, and restore personal responsibility among the corporations making money from them.”

“These bills would protect national parks from the damaging impacts of oil and gas drilling, create new jobs for out-of-work oil and gas workers and ensure that local communities and experts can have their say about public land,” said Matt Kirby, Director of Energy and Landscape Conservation at the National Parks Conservation Association. “The bills are a prime example of the types of oil and gas reforms needed to protect our nation’s most cherished public lands not only from the immediate damage of nearby oil and gas drilling, but also the even greater threat posed by the climate crisis caused by oil and gas emissions.”

“Tens of thousands of abandoned wells across this country leak pollutants into groundwater, emit methane, and pose other serious safety concerns for people and wildlife living in the area. It’s time to restore these areas and make sure that in the future, the companies responsible for these issues pay for the cleanup,” said Aaron Kindle, Director of Sporting Advocacy at the National Wildlife Federation. “Senator Bennet’s bills will make sure that the public has a voice in how public lands are managed and that taxpayers won’t be on the hook for cleaning up the messes that oil and gas companies leave behind. The bills will also protect wildlife habitat critical to maintaining hunting and fishing opportunities.” 

“It’s a simple concept - the public should determine what happens to public lands - but time after time, the Trump administration has let polluting corporations determine their fate,” said Kelly Martin, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign. “These bills are a major step forward in protecting our climate, communities, and public lands from the polluting and dangerous oil and gas industry. We applaud Sen. Bennet for introducing vital legislation that would shift the burden of cleanup costs for orphaned oil and gas wells away from our communities and back to the polluter where it belongs.”

“Our federal oil and gas leasing system is broken and routinely puts the needs of industry ahead of the public,” said Maria Handley, Director of Campaigns at The Wilderness Society. “By listening to Tribal Nations, frontline communities and those most impacted by fossil fuel extraction on public lands we can build a collective approach to manage our shared lands.” 

“Western states and western taxpayers have been paying the price for the destruction caused by oil and gas companies’ orphaned wells and decaying infrastructure for decades, with our money and our health,” said Gwen Lachelt, Director of Western Leaders Network. Thankfully, Senator Bennet just introduced two new bills to address this environmental crisis, protect taxpayers, and create jobs. Senator Bennet’s bills are critical steps forward to protect clean air and water, put Westerners back to work, and empower people across the country to continue to provide input on management decisions that will shape how our landscapes are used for future generations.”

“For decades, unplugged wells have been allowed to pollute the land, water, and air of thousands of Westerners who live near federally managed oil and gas deposits. These same communities, who had little input in development decisions, today face widespread unemployment,” said Barbara Vasquez, Oil and Gas Chair for the Western Organization of Resources Councils. “Senator Bennet’s legislation will not only put these communities back to work plugging wells abandoned by industry, protect groundwater, reduce methane pollution, address the growing crisis of orphaned wells and ensure broader public participation in future development, it also prioritizes urgently needed bonding reform.”  

"Holding irresponsible, polluting fossil fuel corporations accountable for shirking their cleanup responsibilities onto the backs of taxpayers and shining a light on public lands oil and gas leasing processes being abused by the administration while increasing public participation are no-brainer pieces of legislation that every member of Congress should support. Taxpayers and our public lands can no longer afford the corrupt backroom deals that have become the hallmark of the administration. It's time to put the public back in public lands decisions" said Jayson O'Neill, Western Values Project director.

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Press Contacts: 

Audubon: Matt Smelser, [email protected], 512.739.9635

Earthjustice: Phil LaRue, [email protected], 202.667.4317

WORC: Angel Amaya, [email protected], 361.779.2572

TWS: Tony Iallonardo, [email protected], 202.429.2699