Millions of dollars go to plug oil and gas wells on tribal lands and other areas
The Department of the Interior is spending around $40 million in tribal communities to plug old oil and gas wells that have caused serious pollution — and a portion of that spending is going to states in the Mountain West.
“Addressing legacy pollution will have a big impact on our environment, our water quality and the health and well-being of our communities,” Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian affairs and a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community, said in a press call. “It also provides an opportunity for economic revitalization of tribes.”
This first round of grant money will primarily assess the abandoned oil and gas wells. Some funds will go towards plugging them. That’s critical to stop methane leaks and contaminated water from further harming tribal communities who have been particularly impacted. The Clean Air Task Force found people living on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Utah are two times more likely to live within a half a mile of an oil and gas facility. The Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, or the Northern Ute tribe, is 42 times more likely.
“There's a lot of upfront work that has to be done before the plugging actually can take place,” Winnie Stachelberg, the Interior Department’s senior advisor and infrastructure coordinator, said in the press call. “There's measuring the depth of the wells, there's assessing the type of cement that's going to be needed.”
In the Mountain West, the Navajo Nation will receive nearly $5 million and the Southern Ute Tribe will get about $500,000. Four tribes in Montana will receive more than $4 million total to assess about 330 wells.
This is part of the Interior’s master plan to spend billions cleaning up a legacy of pollution on public, private and state lands. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who spoke about the investment while visiting a leaking well in Colorado, said millions of Americans live within one mile of an orphaned oil or gas well.
“These toxic sites pollute backyards where children play, recreation areas and community spaces,” she said. “They have also threatened homeowners' ability to thrive in the one place where they should be happy and comfortable.”
She added that this is as much a Biden administration priority as it is her own, having grown up in a New Mexico community that was home to the one of the nation’s largest open-pit uranium mines. Although the mine was closed more than 40 years ago, she said the effects still remain.
The Interior has also created a specialized Orphaned Wells Program office to oversee the projects and get started on the work as soon as possible.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.