In Pittsburgh this week, Joe Biden unveiled a new infrastructure plan that will serve as the centerpiece of his economic agenda. The sweeping plan, which will spend $ 2 trillion in eight years, covers a wide variety of measures, from building electric vehicle charging stations to disconnecting municipal water mains.
As part of the plan, Biden plans to spend an “immediate upfront investment” of $ 16 billion to connect abandoned oil and gas wells and clear old mines. He says money will create “hundreds of thousands” of union jobs. It should also prevent the planet from heating up methane and other pollution to escape from wells and mines. “Many of these old wells and mines are in rural communities that have suffered years of divestment,” said a fact sheet for the plan.
Abandoned infrastructure hazards are a serious and often ignored problem. Left alone, those wells and mines pose dangers to the environment and to humans. They have also been a financial headache for states and federal agencies who allow the enormous costs associated with retiring safely.
The money could cover some of the costs of remediating the oldest wells and mines, which were dug before companies had to set aside money for what happens to the site at the end of its life.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling,” Biden said during a speech in Pittsburgh yesterday. “Put simply, these are investments we have to make.”
$ 16 billion could be part of the way to sweep up the crumbs of neglected resource extraction infrastructure. But experts and advocates say taking full account of the toxic holes in our landscape left by abandoned wells and mines is only a first step.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, there are 500,000 abandoned mines in the US. Before the 1970s, it was not unusual or illegal for companies to simply walk away from mines when they were no longer profitable. Waste from those mines has polluted the surrounding soil, water or air. Metals from these mines can leave very acidic water, endangering fish and the people who eat those fish. Mine dust can also disperse arsenic, lead and even radioactive material, causing damage to nearby communities.
Many of the companies responsible for creating these dangers have given the government time to clear everything up. Between 2008 and 2017, federal agencies have approximately $ 287 million per year remediation and monitoring of abandoned mines.
Then there’s the even bigger problem of abandoned oil and gas wells: at least 57,000 wells decommissioned in the US are considered “orphans” because the person who served them cannot be identified or afforded to connect them. In addition, there are more “idle” wells that do have owners but have not been used for years and that are at risk of becoming orphans. In total, according to one Estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency
Even when the wells are no longer in use, they can still cause damage if not handled properly. If not plugged in or if the plug fails, the well could spew out oil, gas, and salt water that could contaminate fresh water or soil.
Also disconnected wells release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Methane is much more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to heat retention. The EPA estimates that orphaned and inactive wells account for approx 280,000 tons methane per year, which causes about as much damage to the climate as 2.1 million cars in a year. So closing those wells would help reduce US greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s like a ticking climate bomb,” said Ben Beachy, Sierra Club director. “It’s something we’ll have to deal with somehow.”
The problem could get worse in the future. If Biden continues with his campaign goal of putting the US on track to switch to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, someone will eventually have to pay the bill for connecting 3.8 million open wells – including active ones – in the USA. That works out to $ 280 billion, according to Greg Rogers, who co-authored one report on abandoned wells for the financial think tank Carbon Tracker. Taking that into account, Biden’s initial $ 16 billion bid for orphan resources is a drop in the bucket.
States are already losing a lot of money to abandoned wells. While there are now regulations requiring businesses to set aside money to pay for a well’s dismantling, in many states, businesses can get away with stowing away very little money. In Ohio, a business can bring in $ 15,000 “Blanket” band to cover an unlimited number of wells. It’s a meager sum considering the average cost of connecting a single well in the state in 2019 $ 100,000
States accept bonds that are in fact equal to pennies to the dollar of the cost of actually doing this end-of-life work [to plug wells], ”Says Rogers. “It’s really a grant from the state governments to the oil and gas industry.”
The economics of well remediation is daunting, and the current lack of funding could be leave wells dangerously disconnected – especially after the pandemic hit state budgets.
The average cost to securely connect an older source is anywhere from $ 40,000 to $ 50,000. But for newer wells that are typically deeper, the cost can be as high as $ 300,000, according to Rogers’ report.
If Biden is going to send federal money to states to help them cover those costs, Rogers says he should connect strings that will force companies to take more responsibility for cleaning up after themselves. This may include giving priority to funding states that set higher bonds for mining companies.
“Don’t set the conditions for this problem to repeat itself,” Rogers says. “Increase the amount of adhesion. Get rid of general ties. ”
Rogers and Beachy are optimistic that all that spending will lead to more jobs, especially for people who previously worked in oil and gas fields or mines. “We need to make sure we work proactively and create good jobs for the family in the same communities where workers are facing the energy transition,” said Beachy, who is from West Virginia, where the drop of coal has already cost jobs
Cleaning up the clutter of the past is at the heart of Biden’s overall infrastructure plan, which would be funded by an increase in corporate tax. The plan also allocates money to replace all of the country’s lead pipes that have poisoned children – especially in communities of color such as Flint, MichiganIt also invests in accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and a clean energy network.
But environmentalists like Beachy are pushing for even more ambitious plans. Sierra Club is part of a network of forward-thinking organizations that have endorsed an infrastructure and pandemic recovery agenda called the “THRIVE ActWhich would spend $ 10 trillion over the next decade. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) is expected to submit it as a bill in April.
Democrats will face an uphill battle in Congress to translate any infrastructure plan into concrete policy. Whether they blossom or not, someone will pay for the cost of abandoned wells and mines – whether those costs come from cleaning up the mess or living with the environmental consequences.