Seizing an Opportunity to Put Laid-off Oil and Gas Employees Back to Work

With 3 million abandoned wells across the United States (2 million are still unplugged, according to the EPA), some states are creating programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Capping abandoned wells, which emit millions of metric tons of methane, can cut these emissions by 99%. But federal funding is critical to addressing the issue.

Even before the pandemic slashed petroleum demand, oil and gas producers had hit the wall of low prices and high fracking debt loads. Thousands of wells were idled, leading to massive layoffs and pay cuts for those still employed. Oil and gas company bankruptcies increased by 62% in 2020 and researchers estimate this number will continue to snowball. These idled wells will become abandoned wells.

Since the fracking boom began in 2008, the number of abandoned wells increased by 12%, and will only rise. BP declared “peak oil” in 2019 and expects that demand will only decrease. Funding for capping wells is set aside by production companies, but those declaring bankruptcy will not have sufficient funds to retire and plug their wells. Closing one fracked well is estimated at $300,000 (approximately 10 times the cost for a traditional well closure) – impossible sums for many companies. 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates total US well capping costs at $435 billion (yes, with a “b” – billion). Neither states nor oil companies can afford this sum. Using federal funding to hire out-of-work oil industry employees to plug these wells is beneficial for both the employees and the environment.

These uncapped wells leak carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde in addition to massive methane emissions: Global atmospheric methane emission levels have risen dramatically since the fracking boom began and are a major contributor to global warming. A flood of new abandoned wells leaking methane will only worsen this problem.

Several proposals have been put forward: The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) has proposed a federal well cleanup program using stimulus funding, and several major environmental organizations have presented plans to plug wells. North Dakota, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania have explored smaller-scale programs (using federal stimulus finding) to plug abandoned wells, boosting local economies by creating jobs for unemployed oilfield workers.

Politics plays a role in determining federal funding resources for well remediation: If funding is delayed, former oil industry workers remain unemployed and the damaging environmental effects of abandoned well leakage and emissions continue. 

Putting experienced oil field employees back to work while reducing greenhouse gas emissions is possible. Climate policy can’t be politicized any longer – we’re simply out of time. When the oil and gas industry, state politicians, and environmental organizations all agree on a policy that will create jobs and cut emissions – it’s time to take action. Plugging abandoned wells is a win for the country, climate, and our nation’s political parties.

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