When you make a mess, it’s your responsibility to clean it up. That’s how I was raised, and that’s how I raised my son. Throughout my 28 years of farming and ranching, I have made plenty of messes, and trust me, I did not always want to clean them up. But I did because it was my responsibility.
Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry likes to play by a different set of rules. Right now, oil and gas companies are required to permanently seal – known as plugging – their wells and restore the surrounding land when they cease operations. However, this legal requirement did not always exist. Before the 1950s, oil and gas companies often walked away from their wells without plugging them or conducting any land remediation. In recent decades, we have experienced a boom-and-bust energy cycle where large numbers of oil and gas companies go out of business and tens of thousands of workers lose their jobs. When this happens, it falls on the government to plug them. The problem is that government funding to plug these wells is a fraction of what is needed, and our communities are left to suffer.
There are more than 56,000 documented orphan wells across our country, but the true number is likely more than a million. When a well is orphaned and left unplugged, it can leak oil and other toxic chemicals, endanger local water sources and air quality and emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. As a farmer and rancher, I have seen how orphaned wells can jeopardize family farms and ranches, threatening livestock and crops. In fact, this summer, a multi-generational Texas rancher in the Permian Basin spoke out against the threat of orphaned wells in the West and described how an unplugged well on her cattle ranch started leaking toxic wastewater into her land, killing livestock and threatening to render the land uninhabitable for the next 50 years. These wells can also cause serious threats to the health and well-being of residents and also depress real estate values. This decreases funding for local schools, hospitals, roads and highways that we so desperately need.
Fortunately, Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández are spearheading the movement to plug orphan wells and clean up our communities. The REGROW Act – led by Luján – was included in the infrastructure bill and makes a critical investment of $4.7 billion to plug every documented orphan well and repair the surrounding land.
Plugging orphaned wells is a win-win. Not only will it clean up our communities, combat climate change and protect our health, but the programs will also create and retain tens of thousands of good-paying jobs. For farmers and ranchers, we will be able to rest assured knowing our soil is fertile and free of contamination. And for the more than 100,000 oil and gas workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic, they will be able to get back to work plugging wells using the skills they already have and for comparable wages.
I am grateful for the work leaders in our great state have done to tackle the orphan well crisis. It’s time to clean up the messes from the last century; we can start by plugging orphaned wells.