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Precious landscapes need protection from orphaned wells

Aug 8, 2021


From Yosemite National Park in the west to Great Smoky Mountains and Virgin Islands National Parks in the east, I was privileged to work with the National Park Service for 34 years, helping to protect our country’s most treasured natural and cultural resources.

My longest assignment was the decade I spent at Dinosaur National Monument, a national park that straddles the Colorado/Utah border. When asked why I stayed so long, I always noted the well-known dinosaur quarry that mesmerized millions of would-be paleontologists, the incredible canyons of the Yampa and Green Rivers, the diverse wildlife populations, and the amazing records of early habitation that always pleased visitors seeking a quieter time away from busy lives.

Unfortunately, all these valuable resources are threatened by past and current oil and gas development near the park. A recent report identified more than 30,000 orphaned wells within a 30-mile radius of national park sites; and there are 41 that we know of near Dinosaur.

An “orphaned” well is one that is not actively being used for production or monitoring. For those orphaned wells the owner cannot be found or is unable to plug the well and reclaim the site. Unfortunately, those wells pose serious environmental risks since they leak dangerous chemicals into the air, onto surrounding lands and into ground water causing harm to wildlife, recreation users, and other park visitors. These wells are not just a threat to our parks, but to the communities near them as well. Many of these orphaned wells leak methane gases that are known threats to public health and may cause asthma, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue.

With reports of more than 800,000 documented and undocumented orphaned wells nationwide, this is a big problem. There are scores of other parks in New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah that have similar issues, as well as other public lands and communities throughout the western U.S. Given the proliferation of oil and gas leasing and the number of these orphaned wells, we need to start now to find and cap them in order to reduce the dangerous public health and environmental impacts. There is a start toward that end in legislation and funding offered in Sen. Michael Bennet’s proposed Oil and Gas Bonding Reform and Orphaned Well Remediation Act.

We also need to find and hold accountable those individuals and companies that benefit from extracting these oil and gas resources from our public lands and see that they cap and seal the wells not in active use. And one way to help avoid creating more orphaned wells is to make sure that oil and gas companies are paying a fair rental price for drilling on federal lands. The Fair Return for Public Lands Act, introduced by Sens. Rosen and Grassley, would update oil and gas regulations to increase the outdated royalty and rental rates. Higher rental rates would help to ensure accountability and end the problems created by abandoned wells in the future.

Soon, the Department of the Interior is expected to release a report following a comprehensive review of our nation’s oil and gas leasing program. I hope that the issue of orphaned wells, in addition to our outdated public lands royalty system, will be addressed.

I urge Congress to quickly tackle the situation with orphaned oil and gas wells and work to reform our leasing system. Dinosaur National Monument, other park areas, public lands and communities need the direction, resources, and the momentum to address these hidden dangers.

Denny Huffman is a former park superintendent at Dinosaur National Park. He retired from the National Park Service after 34 years of service.