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$250M in federal money is coming to help Utah, other states plug pollution from leaky wells

Sections of a pipeline that collects natural gas sit outside Dead Horse State Park near Moab, where oil development is creating conflict with environmentalists. A portion of $250 million allocated under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed last year by President Joe Biden will help Utah tackle legacy pollution.

Sections of a pipeline that collects natural gas sit outside Dead Horse State Park near Moab, where oil development is creating conflict with environmentalists. A portion of $250 million allocated under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed last year by President Joe Biden will help Utah tackle legacy pollution. (Michael O’Donoghue for the Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

WASHINGTON — A portion of $250 million allocated under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed last year by President Joe Biden will help Utah tackle legacy pollution.

The U.S. Department of Interior says thousands of Utah residents live within a mile of abandoned or "orphaned" oil and gas wells left unplugged by the extraction industry.

Why it matters: These wells jeopardize public health and safety by contaminating groundwater, seeping toxic chemicals, emitting harmful pollutants including methane, and harming wildlife.

"I have seen firsthand how the orphaned oil and gas wells left behind by extractive industries lead to hazardous pollution, water contamination, and safety hazards for our communities," Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a teleconference Wednesday.

"Through President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are making the largest investment in tackling legacy pollution in American history and taking an all-of-government approach to addressing the environmental impacts from these legacy developments while creating good paying jobs in states across the country."

How the money will be used: There is $33 million specifically directed at the problem of orphaned oil and gas wells at this stage.

Four bureaus within the departments of the Interior and Agriculture will address 277 high-priority polluting wells that pose threats to human health and safety, the climate and wildlife. These wells are scattered across public lands that include national forests, wildlife refuges, and land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

"Addressing legacy pollution will not only have a profound impact on our environment, our water quality and the health and well being of our communities, but it also provides an opportunity for economic revitalization," Haaland said.

"As we begin these projects, putting people to work is at the heart of the president's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and his vision to build a better America and the steps we're taking to clean up orphan, oil and gas wells will do just that."

Utah projects: Fourteen wells in the Moab area will be reclaimed. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a popular tourist destination, will also receive additional funding for an assessment and inventory as part of the remediation program.

"Millions of Americans live within a mile of hundreds of thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells. These wells jeopardize public health and safety by contaminating groundwater, seeping toxic chemicals, emitting harmful pollutants including methane, and harming wildlife," said Laura Daniel-Davis, principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals.

Other state benefits: Funding will be distributed to four agencies for work in California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. The agencies are expected to immediately begin the process to acquire plugging and reclamation services through contracts and grants, according to a press release.

In Kentucky, for example, 24 wells in the Daniel Boone National Forest will be plugged as part of the effort to address high priority wells.

Mitch Landrieu, the White House's senior adviser responsible for coordinating implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, said Wednesday orphaned wells are a significant challenge.

"As someone who was born and raised in an oil and gas state, I can say that these abandoned orphan oil and gas wells are a huge problem. And we're just beginning to learn the scope and scale because states are now finally counting them," said Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans.

"Often these wells are polluting our backyards or recreation areas or ponds or streams or rivers or public spaces across the country that's seeping into groundwater systems and leaking methane."

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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