Interior Department announces reward for 24 states to plug abandoned oil and gas wells

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The Department of the Interior announced on Friday that it had awarded an initial $560 million from the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure act to 24 states, including Oklahoma, to begin clogging, clogging and recover orphan oil and gas wells.

Millions of Americans across the country live within a mile of an orphan oil and gas well.

The allocation is part of $1.15 billion in Phase 1 funding for states to remediate approximately 10,000 abandoned wells. In total, the law allocates $4.7 billion to clean up these former pollution sites.

“This is a massive program,” Matt Skinner, director of public information at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, said in an interview Friday.

Oklahoma will receive $25 million in the initial phase of the program, with the money becoming available Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year. It is still clear how the funds will be administered in Oklahoma.

“As with any program, especially a large federal program like this,” Skinner said, “there are always questions about ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and all of these questions have not So obviously the OCC will be spearheading the effort but in terms of the actual administration of the fund these are questions that need to be answered and we are not the only state to have these questions.

Under guidelines provided by the federal government, the state provided a list of wells to be plugged and salvaged during the first phase; there are 1,196 in total. Only Kansas has more.

Skinner points out that the state has its own well plugging program, which is funded by fees charged to producers. But with more than 17,000 abandoned wells, he says, it’s hard to keep track.

“So this program would allow us to do that,” Skinner said, “to be able to be more proactive and anticipate the problem.”

The administration is touting the benefits the cleanup will have relative to climate change, given the potential to reduce methane emissions seeping from orphan wells — wells for which there is no longer a responsible operator.

Skinner said an equally important benefit to Oklahoma was reducing the potential for groundwater contamination.

“It’s undeniable that every well that needs to be plugged and isn’t, for the time it remains open, poses a potential threat,” Skinner said, “and that threat needs to be addressed.”

In addition to this state money, $33 million was recently allocated to cap 277 wells on federal public lands. And the administration said efforts were also underway to establish a tribal orphan well subsidy program.

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