The Times-Independent

New BLM program to plug orphan wells

Five prioritized in Grand County

According to some estimates, Grand County is home to nearly 150 abandoned or at-risk oil and gas wells — one-third of those in Utah as a whole.

An oil well on Bureau of Land Management land in Wyoming. Photo courtesy of BLM

Now, a federal program led by the Bureau of Land Management aims to begin plugging and reclaiming such wells, millions of which are leaking contaminants across the country.

The $1.15 billion program, called the Federal Orphaned Well Program, provides funding to inventory, plug and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells across state, federal and tribal lands, while incentivizing structural reforms to prevent new wells from becoming orphaned.

“It’s just great news,” said Steve Feldgus, the deputy assistant secretary of land and minerals management for the Department of the Interior.

While the program was galvanized by COVID-19 shutdowns, it had been long needed, Feldgus said.

“There was very little existing funding to take care of the wells,” he said. “…As companies were going bankrupt because of low oil prices, that was going to create more orphaned wells.”

Orphaned wells are nonproducing wells that have sat idle for a certain amount of time — usually a few years — and no longer have an identifiable or solvent operator. These wells frequently spout air contaminants, particularly methane, into the atmosphere, and run the risk of contaminating aquifers and other groundwater.

They also take up space — up to several acres each.

“It’s like thousands of miniature Superfund sites,” said Ashley Korenblat, managing director of the nonprofit Public Land Solutions, which has advocated for the plugging of orphaned wells.

Of those thousands, five in Grand County — in the Book Cliffs and Cisco areas — have been identified as high priority by the BLM, and will hopefully be plugged and remediated before the year is out.

Some of the wells are located in drainages and could contaminate groundwater, hence their prioritization, said Rachel Wootton, public affairs specialist for the BLM’s Utah office.

“We’re excited to use funds to close those [wells],” Wootton said. “We’re very grateful for this program.”

The program has earmarked $26 million to address abandoned wells in Utah. As funding will remain available through 2030, the Moab’s BLM office — or other federal, state or tribal agencies — could apply for funding to remediate more wells, or identify undocumented ones.

Indeed, estimates on the total number of orphaned wells vary wildly. The Environmental Protection Agency recently estimated up to two million undocumented orphaned wells across the country. A 2021 study by the consultancy Western EcoSystems Technology identified 143 wells on federal land in Grand County that are orphaned or at risk of such.

In 2020, the BLM had documented only 41 orphaned wells across Utah, though Feldgus said inventories will inevitably climb as agencies receive funding to document more wells.

“There’s been drilling in this country for 160-plus years … The records don’t go back nearly that far,” Feldgus said. “Even when they do, they’re not completely accurate.”

But the Federal Orphaned Well Program isn’t just about plugging holes. Crucially, the program aims to make itself obsolete by incentivizing reforms that will make it much harder for wells to be orphaned in the first place.

Theoretically, when wells are first drilled, companies are required by the state to set aside money for plugging and reclamation, which can include removing infrastructure, pouring cement into the well and reseeding the site with native vegetation.

But these cash amounts, or “bonding requirements,” often haven’t been updated in decades. In Utah, operators can set aside as little as $1,500 for a single well, and no more than $60,000.

“When the time comes to actually reclaim the well, the bonding that was put up at the very beginning is woefully inadequate,” Korenblat said.
As part of its state grants section, the Federal Orphaned Well Program is offering financial incentives for states to increase bonding requirements, or create alternative orphaned well financing structures.

For Korenblat, these reforms are perhaps most important aspect of the program.

“When we take resources out of the public lands and we don’t think about the long-term consequences, the government ends up footing the bill, which means we end up footing the bill,” she said.

“In Moab … what we need to be doing is working on sustainable recreation,” she added. “… What we don’t need is a bunch of orphaned well pads that we also have to deal with … on top of our other challenges.”