President Joe Biden’s vision for a clean energy future isn’t just about spending billions on solar panels and wind farms. The White House also wants to hire hundreds of thousands of workers to clean up the relics of the nation’s fossil fuels past.
The American Jobs Plan, which Biden is pitching Wednesday in a major speech in Pittsburgh, calls for a $16 billion investment to plug countless defunct oil and gas wells as well as reclaim abandoned coal mines.
The Biden administration says this program alone will put hundreds of thousands of people to work in union jobs, including many skilled workers whose livelihoods have been derailed (or soon will be) by the rise of clean energy. At the same time, this investment would address the serious safety and environmental threats posed by these facilities to the air, soil and water supply.
Crucially, many of these mines and wells exist in Appalachia and other communities decimated by the demise of coal and the rise of renewable energy.
“This is a win-win. We can address dangerous issues, while also putting people back to work — with dignity,” said Andrew Logan, director of the oil-and-gas program at sustainability nonprofit Ceres.
Cleaning up coal country
West Virginia in particular would benefit from this federal investment. Not only has the collapse of the coal industry left countless West Virginians out of work, the state also has a significant number of uncapped wells.
“This is like an economic gift being presented to West Virginia, in a positive way,” said Logan.
This $16 billion proposal could have the added political benefit of making the overall $2 trillion package more palatable to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat who holds enormous power over the fate of the legislation.
“I can’t think of anything better to put money into that is potentially shovel-ready to create thousands of good-paying jobs in the region,” said Ted Boettner, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute.
Unlike efforts to teach coal miners how to code, offering positions cleaning up mines and orphan wells would allow the industry’s former workers to put their existing skills to work.
“This is not a train-and-pray program,” said Boettner. “This funding will provide a true path for many people in the fossil fuel industry to have good-paying jobs in the places they want to live, work and raise a family.”
The scale of the problem is both massive and alarming because much remains a mystery.
The fact sheet from the White House notes that there are “hundreds of thousands” of former wells and abandoned mines that pose “serious safety hazards, while also causing ongoing air, water and other environmental damage.”
The federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement categorizes roughly 43,000 abandoned mines as “high priority.”
Millions of orphan wells?
The Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission estimates there are about 56,600 verified orphan oil wells in the United States, with Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas, Kansas and West Virginia topping the list.
But the commission notes that these estimates “do not convey a reliable picture of the actual number” of orphan wells, warning that that undocumented wells “often go undetected for years or decades.” Some of these sites date back to the 19th century — a time when there was little or no regulatory oversight.
Orphan wells are those that have been abandoned by oil-and-gas companies that can’t pay to plug them. Although companies today are required to post bonds to cover the cost of plugging abandoned wells, this is often insufficient. That leaves state programs and taxpayers on the hook to plug the wells.
“This is a boom-and-bust sector and when there’s a bust, sometimes it’s cheaper for companies to just walk away,” Logan said.
Other estimates put the total number of orphaned wells much higher. An April 2018 report from the EPA says data on the total US count of abandoned onshore wells ranges between 2.3 million and 3 million.
Research published last year by Environmental Science & Technology estimates there are “at least” 4 million abandoned wells in the United States and finds that they “remain the most uncertain methane source” in the country.
None of these estimates account for the currently active wells that may eventually become uneconomical. The nation’s 2.6 million onshore oil and gas wells will cost another $280 billion to retire, according to estimates from the Carbon Tracker Initiative.
Dangerous methane leaks
These wells have serious environmental impacts, including groundwater contamination, methane leakage and surface environment contamination. Methane is a particular concern because over a 20-year period the greenhouse gas is 84 times more potent than CO2.
These wells can also be dangerous. Methane leaks from abandoned wells have reportedly caused explosions in Colorado and Pennsylvania.
“There is no redeemable value in these orphan wells, but there are economic benefits to cleaning them up,” said Logan.
In a statement to CNN Business, the American Petroleum Institute said the industry shares the Biden administration’s goals of safety and environmental stewardship.
“Our industry is fully committed to complying with existing state and federal requirements for abandoned wells and reclaiming wells sites, and we will continue to support efforts to plug these wells and further reduce methane emissions,” the API said.
Although Biden’s promise to create hundreds of thousands of jobs may sound high, it is supported by recent research.
A significant program to plug orphan wells could create as many as 120,000 jobs, according to a paper published last year by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and Resources for the Future.
“This is not a short-term gimmick,” said Logan. “It will take years, if not decades, to reclaim these mines and wells.”