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Mountain West states share in $560 million push to plug abandoned oil and gas wells

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News Brief

The Interior Department is giving 24 states, including five in the Mountain West, a total of $560 million to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells on state and private lands, the agency announced last week.

The five states in the region are each getting $25 million to begin plugging wells on state and private land. Colorado has identified 710 high-priority sites it wants to clean up – the most in the region. Montana and Arizona have each identified about 250 abandoned wells.

The announcement doesn't include Wyoming's targeted well number – many of its abandoned sites are on federal lands – but notes that the state will use the funding to identify new abandoned wells and plug as many existing sites as possible, creating about 300 jobs in the process. New Mexico is prioritizing efforts in disadvantaged communities where negative health effects from pollution are more common.

An abandoned, or orphaned, well is the result of a fossil fuel company drilling for resources and then leaving without plugging it – and leaving it to taxpayers to foot the bill. There are more than 3.2 million of these sites in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Winnie Stachelberg, the Interior Department's infrastructure coordinator, said millions of Americans live within a mile of an orphaned well.

“There's methane leaking from many of the unplugged wells. It's a serious safety hazard. A significant cause of climate change,” she said.

Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. That’s why the Biden Administration is working with 24 states to identify 10,000 high-priority wells to plug as soon as possible, usually by pumping cement into the leaking area.

“It is a historic investment that finally enables us to confront long standing environmental injustice,” Stachelberg said. “To address legacy pollution that has existed throughout the country for decades.”

The funding comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year, which included a $4.7 billion total federal commitment to addressing abandoned wells across the country.

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, 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.

Will Walkey is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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