December 23, 2020

Sen. Warren and Rep. Welch Lead Letter on Trump Administration Failure to Address Millions of Orphan Oil and Gas Wells That Continue to Emit Methane and Toxic Chemicals

The problem is exacerbated by oil drillers' financial struggles caused by the pandemic and the Trump administration slashing environmental regulations 

Trump administration's failed enforcement could cost states hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for cleanup, while endangering the environment and public health

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC -- United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Representative Peter Welch (D-Vt.) led a letter to Secretary of the Interior (DOI) David Bernhardt about the Bureau of Land Management's failure to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for plugging millions of abandoned oil and gas wells on public lands, which continue to leak dangerous chemicals like methane and endanger both the environment and public health. The letter is also signed by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.).

The federal government estimates that there are more than three million abandoned oil and gas wells across the United States, two million of which are unplugged and are releasing "the methane equivalent of the annual emissions from more than 1.5 million cars." These abandoned wells can contaminate groundwater and emit volatile and hazardous compounds, posing significant environmental and public health risks. Leaking methane is particularly dangerous, since methane "pound for pound can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period." In 2018 and 2019, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) laid out recommendations for how the Bureau of Land Management can track and manage the wells. But the Trump administration largely ignored and even hampered efforts to hold Big Oil and franking firms accountable by weakening environmental laws like the Methane Rule, which would have helped the government compel oil and gas companies to plug their wells, but instead freed these companies from the need to detect and repair methane leaks.

"Implementing the GAO recommendations is a bare minimum action that the Interior Department and its agencies can take to address the growing number of orphan and abandoned wells and their associated environmental health and safety risks. Congress and the American public deserve an explanation as to why your agency has refused to do so in a timely manner," wrote Senator Warren and Representative Welch.

Their letter notes that the Trump administration's inaction paired with oil companies' financial strain during the pandemic have exacerbated the problem, making it unlikely that bankrupt or struggling companies will pay to plug these abandoned wells that threaten the lives and livelihoods of surrounding communities. This shunts the financial responsibility of hundreds of millions of dollars to states   and represents a lost opportunity to create good-paying jobs -- paid for by oil companies -- to close the wells while also boosting the economy. 

"Plugging these orphan and abandoned wells would reduce the threats that they pose to human health and the environment, and could create thousands of new jobs during the pandemic-caused recession," the lawmakers wrote.

Their letter to DOI requests updated information about the DOI's plans to implement the recommendations from the GAO and the steps it is taking to assist states in addressing these dangerous orphan and abandoned oil and gas wells before the impending end of the Trump administration.

"The American public deserves an Interior Department that will resolve problems that fall under its jurisdiction," wrote the lawmakers. "Without decisive action, the number of oil and gas wells... will only continue to grow."

Senator Warren has called for an outright ban on fossil fuel extraction in public lands and waters and has previously raised concerns about abandoned industry sites that pose serious threats to local communities and exacerbate the climate crisis.