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Group Proposes Hiring Laid-Off Oilfield Workers To Plug Abandoned Wells

An abandoned oil well in Alaska.
An abandoned oil well in Alaska.

As the coronavirus pandemic hammers oil prices, the number of "orphaned" or abandoned oil wells could grow. A group wants to enlist newly unemployed oilfield workers in addressing the problem.

 Click 'play' to hear the audio version of this story.

The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a consortium of 31 oil-producing states, told Reuters it wants the Trump administration to pay laid-off workers to plug abandoned wells, which can contaminate groundwater and leak methane gas.

Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson works with the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, an advocacy group that promotes public health, safety and the environment. He likes the idea.

“As we see Colorado go through this unprecedented budget and financial crisis, and we’re seeing sweeping layoffs in the oil and gas industry, if we can put some of these people back to work and get them paid to do work that in the end is a net positive for Colorado, our public health and safety and the environment, then I see that as a pretty clear win-win," Forkes-Gudmundson said.

Across the U.S. there are more than three million abandoned oil and gas wells, according to a 2018 count by the Environmental Protection Agency. The number is expected to rise as oil and gas companies go bust, possibly leaving taxpayers on the hook for the cost of plugging wells if bonding and local program finding is insufficient.

In Canada, the federal government is planning to spend the equivalent of $1.2 billion to launch a similar well clean-up program in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C.

"Cleaning them up will bring people back to work and help many landowners who have had these wells on their property for years but haven't been able to get them taken care of and the land restored," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month.

The cost of plugging wells varies widely. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, after tracking the state's orphaned well program costs from 2012 through 2017, found the average cost of plugging and reclaiming an orphaned site with a single well to be $82,500.

Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM 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.

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Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.
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