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Clean up orphaned wells for Chaco, all national parks

BY TOM VAUGHAN/CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, SILVER CITY RESIDENT

Published: Saturday, July 31st, 2021 at 3:32pm
Updated: Friday, August 6th, 2021 at 3:33pm

During my 22 years with the National Park Service, I spent four years as superintendent of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico. Chaco has roughly 4,000 identified prehistoric and historic archaeological sites, representing more than 10,000 years of the human story in Chaco Canyon. Today, Chaco Culture NHP is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that preserves this sacred place of ancestral Puebloan and Diné people. It’s a place of ongoing revelation; Chaco’s story keeps unfolding as research goes on.

Unfortunately, like many parks, the resources at Chaco Culture are threatened by oil and gas development. Forty-four orphaned wells have been identified within a 30-mile radius of Chaco Culture. An “orphaned” oil and gas well is one that is not being actively used for production or monitoring. The owner either cannot be found or is unable to plug the well and reclaim the site.

Orphaned wells are an environmental hazard. They leak dangerous chemicals into the air and contaminate groundwater, causing harm to wildlife, livestock and people. They are not just a threat to our environment and parks; they are a threat to the health of nearby communities, as well. Methane leaks can cause such problems as asthma, frequent headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. In the instance of Chaco, there are hundreds of Diné families living in the area around Chaco and many of my former coworkers’ families are affected daily by these leaks.

This is a growing problem across the country — there are over 294,000 documented orphaned wells that need to be rehabilitated. The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission estimates there may be as many as 764,000 undocumented orphaned wells. A million holes leaking toxic substances across the nation, mostly in the West.

For the sake of our precious resources, our environment, our national parks and our communities, we must address this threat. Legislation such as that from Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the Oil and Gas Bonding Reform and Orphaned Well Remediation Act (S. 4642), and one from Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M., namely the Orphaned Well Cleanup and Jobs Act of 2021 (H.R. 2415), will help fix our broken oil and gas leasing system, and protect our parks by cleaning up these abandoned wells. These bills would strengthen bonding requirements and provide the Bureau of Land Management with funding to reclaim orphaned wells — ensuring the crisis is fixed in the short term, while reforming federal bonding policy so that our national parks and surrounding communities don’t face a similar crisis in the future.

I urge Congress to act quickly to acknowledge the huge problems represented by orphaned oil and gas wells, and pass legislation to remedy this issue. I’m glad to see Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., has agreed to cosponsor S.4642 and I hope Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., will soon do so. I also urge Reps. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., and Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., to cosponsor H.R. 2415. We must protect our parks and ensure our communities are healthy enough to enjoy these special places for generations to come.