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Déjà vu as defunct drillers abandon wells across the West

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Rockies Today

October 22 · Issue #20 · View online
The big stories up and down the Rocky Mountains, curated by Mountain West News

Déjà vu as defunct drillers abandon wells
BLM lands in the West are pocked with thousands of oil and gas wells sitting idle, many abandoned, each posing risks to the landscape and to taxpayers. As Heather Richards reports for E&E News, nowhere in the West is the abandoned well story as accessible or striking as Wyoming, which has yet to recover from the coalbed methane industry going bust about a decade ago after punching more than 20,000 holes in the ground. That bust could be “a preamble to a bigger crisis to come.”
Thousands of 'orphan wells' spark safety, cleanup fears Thousands of 'orphan wells' spark safety, cleanup fears
Across the West, thousands of oil and gas wells sit idle on federal lands.
Some are on hold for better pricing. Others have been left to sit for so long that the risk of abandonment is high. And many are orphaned, the companies that drilled them now defunct.
How many of these abandoned wells are out there is unclear. They pose environmental and safety hazards, but, as critics note, the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t have a good way of tracking them.
Yet there’s not nearly enough money set aside to plug the ones that are known. Years after a gas price bust in the early 2000s forced oil and gas companies to shutter, federal officials have yet to remove the nonproducing wells from perpetual limbo.
“It does pose a risk,” said Frank Rusco, natural resources and environment director at the Government Accountability Office. “Will they be able to reclaim all those wells?”
The abandonment challenge continues to expand. The federal government counted 89 wells in the last two years that were newly orphaned on public lands. Each represents a cost to the taxpayer and a risk of hydrocarbons migrating into groundwater resources from decaying infrastructure.
BLM, which oversees federal oil and gas leasing and drilling, has been scolded by oversight bodies for not keeping better track of orphans. The agency notes wells that aren’t producing, but critics say it’s slow to affirm that nonproducing wells have just been abandoned.
Data revealing the number of orphan wells that should be plugged by BLM doesn’t precisely exist, said Rusco.
“They don’t keep the right records to be able to answer that question,” he said of the Interior Department.
GAO included the federal oil and gas program on its 2011 “high risk” list of programs that are vulnerable to fraud, abuse and mismanagement in part because the office said it didn’t have a robust system for tracking wells — or demanding money to clean up after an oil firm’s collapse.
Earlier this year, GAO reported that 84% of bonds for federal oil and gas development were likely insufficient to cover cleanup costs.
The issue is playing out as “energy dominance” has been a key priority for President Trump. 
Much more on coalbed methane’s boom and bust in Wyoming by Dustin Bleizeffer, published in 2015:
Coalbed methane: Boom, bust and hard lessons
GAO: Public lands workers face assaults, threats
Study finds U.S. public land workers facing assaults, threats Study finds U.S. public land workers facing assaults, threats
Meanwhile…
Hearing to review lessons from Malheur standoff
More public lands news:
Experts dispute Trump administration's rationale for Tongass logging
National parks trying to get a handle on e-bikes
Conservancy plans record $2.5M for Glacier
BLM Utah state director steps down
The war over the Endangered Species Act
The U.S. lawyers rolling back wildlife protection one species at a time The U.S. lawyers rolling back wildlife protection one species at a time
More wildlife news:
Only Yellowstone grizzlies matter for ban lift, 9th circuit hears
How 'underdog' Yellowstone wolf runt became alpha-male pack leader
Wildlife lobby leery of migration legislation
Montana could lose half its bird species as the climate changes
Sale of two Powder River Basin coal mines closes
Sale of Blackjewel mines closes; some employees being called to work Sale of Blackjewel mines closes; some employees being called to work
More energy news:
U.S. coal producers head into Q3'19 earnings season under dark clouds
Wyoming wind farm on track to clear another regulatory hurdle
Analysis: Renewables could match coal power within 5 years, IEA reveals
More stories we're reading today
What a Liberal minority government means for Canada’s environment
Thunberg interviews Indigenous leaders at Fort McMurray for documentary
4 out of 5 Native American women are survivors of domestic or sexual violence. A Colorado Springs garden is helping them recover.
How the Colorado ski industry is dealing with climate change
'Austin of the Northwest'? New $100M events center epitomizes Missoula's rapid growth
For young farmers, hemp is a ‘gateway crop’
The Colorado Sun, one year after the ‘Denver rebellion’
As local news outlets shutter, rural America suffers most
Rockies Today is edited by Matthew Frank, Fellow in Regional Journalism at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.
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O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana, 59812