January 24, 2022
Ms. Tracy Stone-Manning, Director
Bureau of Land Management
760 Horizon Drive
Grand Junction, CO 81506
Dear Director Stone-Manning:
I am writing to you on behalf of over 2,100 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), a non-profit organization composed of retired, former, or current employees of the National Park Service (NPS). The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. As a group we collectively represent nearly 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural and historic resources. Among our members are former NPS directors, regional directors, superintendents, environmental and resource specialists, NEPA practitioners, park rangers, maintenance and administrative staff, and a full array of other former employees, volunteers, and supporters.
We appreciated the opportunity to attend BLM’s Orphaned Wells Webinar on January 6, 2022; and are writing now to offer our comments on the Bureau’s proposed program to implement the provisions of Section 40601 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 20211https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3684/text (the Infrastructure Act) regarding Orphaned Well Site Plugging, Remediation, and Restoration.
Section 40601 of the Infrastructure Act amended Section 349 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (42 U.S.C. 15907), which addresses Orphaned Well Site Plugging, Remediation, and Restoration. The Act requires the Secretary to establish a “program” to plug, remediate, and reclaim orphaned wells located on Federal lands. The “program” shall include:
- A method of identifying, characterizing, and inventorying orphaned wells and associated pipelines, facilities, and infrastructure on Federal land; and ranking those orphaned wells for priority in plugging, remediation, and reclamation, based on public health and safety; potential environmental harm; and other subsurface impacts or land use priorities.
- Distribute funding in accordance with the priorities established for plugging orphaned wells; remediating and reclaiming well pads and facilities associated with orphaned wells; remediating soil and restoring native species habitat that has been degraded due to the presence of orphaned wells and associated pipelines, facilities, and infrastructure; and remediating land adjacent to orphaned wells and decommissioning or removing associated pipelines, facilities, and infrastructure;
- Provide a public accounting of the costs of plugging, remediation, and reclamation for each orphaned well;
- Seek to determine the identities of potentially responsible parties associated with the orphaned well and make efforts to obtain reimbursement for expenditures to the extent practicable;
- Measure or estimate and track emissions of methane and other gases associated with orphaned wells; and contamination of groundwater or surface water associated with orphaned wells; and
- Identify and address any disproportionate burden of adverse human health or environmental effects of orphaned wells on communities of color, low-income communities, and Tribal and indigenous communities.
In addition, the Act provides funding to be administered by the Secretary of the Interior as grants to States for any of the following purposes:
- To plug, remediate, and reclaim orphaned wells located on State-owned or privately owned land.
- To identify and characterize undocumented orphaned wells on State and private land.
- To rank orphaned wells based on factors including— (I) public health and safety; (II) potential environmental harm; and (III) other land use priorities.
- To make information regarding the use of funds received under this subsection available on a public website.
- To measure and track— (I) emissions of methane and other gases associated with orphaned wells; and (II) contamination of groundwater or surface water associated with orphaned wells.
- To remediate soil and restore native species habitat that has been degraded due to the presence of orphaned wells and associated pipelines, facilities, and infrastructure.
- To remediate land adjacent to orphaned wells and decommission or remove associated pipelines, facilities, and infrastructure.
- To identify and address any disproportionate burden of adverse human health or environmental effects of orphaned wells on communities of color, low-income communities, and Tribal and indigenous communities.
Last but not least, to address the orphaned well backlog on federal as well as state lands, the Act provided over $4B for implementing this program.
Methane emissions from orphaned wells is a national problem that extends across federal and state jurisdictional boundaries. Effectively addressing the problem now and, importantly, taking appropriate steps to prevent the problem from reoccurring in the future will require unprecedented coordination between federal and state agencies. The orphaned well backlog problem did not occur overnight; instead it has occurred and grown worse over many decades of less-than-effective federal and state oversight of their respective oil and gas leasing programs. Besides just plugging thousands of orphaned wells between now and 2030, the Infrastructure Act’s orphaned well funding presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for both BLM and the respective state agencies to address material shortcomings in their respective oil and gas leasing programs that have clearly contributed to the current situation.
We encourage BLM to view this funding more broadly than just a chance to plug orphaned wells between now and 2030. It should also serve as motivation for the federal and state agencies to improve their respective orphaned well management and prevention programs. The goals of these programs should be to systematically reduce and eventually eliminate the orphaned well backlog in all jurisdictions by: 1) inventorying, prioritizing, and plugging orphaned wells; and 2) addressing existing regulatory and policy shortcomings that have contributed to the growth of the orphaned well backlog in the first place.
In order to ensure the development and implementation of effective orphaned well programs at both the federal and state level, we urge BLM to take the following steps:
A. Establish a joint federal-state interagency Orphaned Well Task Force (OWTF) to create a framework for implementing the orphaned well plugging program and to address the material shortcomings in the respective federal and state orphaned well programs – If such a task force hasn’t already been established, it should be created immediately. The work plan of the OWTF should include the following actions:
1. Establish a national database of orphaned wells regardless of jurisdiction – The actual numbers of orphaned wells on federal and state lands are apparently unconfirmed. One source (NPCA)2https://www.npca.org/resources/3365-tens-of-thousands-of-orphaned-wells-threaten-national-parks estimates there are over 214,000 orphaned wells across the country with almost 32,000 within a 30-mile radius from a national park site. Another source (McGill University)3https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210121092828.htm estimates there are over 4,000,000 abandoned or orphaned wells in the US, including more than 500,000 that are undocumented by the relevant state agencies. In addition, an Environmental Health News analysis4https://www.ehn.org/oil-and-gas-wells-methane-oceans-2649126354.html of federal data on oil and natural gas wells found there are 55,315 offshore in U.S. federal waters, 53,724 (97 percent) of which are in the Gulf of Mexico, according to data from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), as of November 30, 2020.
The lack of accurate inventories documenting the number of orphaned wells in the United States demonstrates one of several significant shortcomings in the respective federal and state agency programs that must be addressed during this planning process. Establishing a national database of orphaned wells, whether under state or federal jurisdiction, should be a top priority of the OWTF during the first two years of the program. Such a database is needed to fulfill the Act’s program requirements of characterizing and inventorying orphaned wells; measuring and tracking emissions of methane and other gases and contamination of groundwater or surface water; and providing a public accounting of the costs of plugging, remediation, and reclamation for each orphaned well.
To create a national database, the OWTF should identify and consolidate existing state and federal inventories; identify and resolve gaps in that information (e.g., are additional field surveys needed to update existing but incomplete inventories?); and resolve or accommodate jurisdictional differences in definitions or other terminology used to characterize orphaned wells. The objective should be to have a functional, fully integrated national orphaned well database by the end of 2024 that would thenceforth be used as a basis for identifying, documenting, and tracking orphaned well restoration efforts.
2. Establish common state and federal criteria for prioritizing orphaned wells for plugging and restoration – As the Act indicates, prioritization criteria should include: public health and safety; potential environmental harm; and other subsurface impacts or land use priorities. Several challenges exist: these are broad general categories that must be translated into practical terms; and practical criteria in current use vary considerably across federal and state jurisdictions. Developing orphaned well prioritization criteria that are generally accepted regardless of jurisdiction is another important task for the OWTF.
As a starting point for developing common criteria, we suggest the OWTF start with the criteria described in BLM Instruction Memorandum No. 2021-0395https://www.blm.gov/policy/im-2021-039 Orphaned Well Identification, Prioritization, and Plugging and Reclamation; and specifically the scoresheet identified in IM2021-039_Attachment 4.6https://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/docs/2021-07/IM2021-039_att4.pdf The OWTF should focus initially on developing a universal orphaned well priority scoresheet, which would be used both federal and state agencies seeking Infrastructure Act funding to plug wells. In addition to considering the criteria on the current BLM scoresheet, we suggest the OWTF consider adding the following criteria to the list:
- The amount of methane leakage measured at any orphaned well – There are numerous studies, generally of a small percentage of orphaned wells in a limited geographic area, which indicate methane leakage is a common problem among orphaned wells. Given that the applicable section of the Infrastructure Act is focused on reducing methane emissions, the most obvious prioritization criteria should be the amount of methane leakage measured at any particular orphaned well site. Higher leakage should equate to a higher priority to plug.
The limited sampling conducted during those studies may be a basis for estimating the total cumulative methane leakage from orphaned wells in general; however, they are not helpful for determining which wells are leaking the most and therefore should be given a higher priority for plugging. Given that there are not accurate inventories of orphaned wells, we imagine that there is likewise no accurate database of the amount of known methane leakage from hundreds of thousands individual orphaned wells. We also suspect that, with existing staff and resource limitations, it could take the responsible agencies many years to conduct field surveys to measure and document the actual methane leakage rate at all known orphaned wells. As a result, we suggest that actual methane leakage rate is not currently a practical method for prioritizing which orphaned wells should be plugged first.
However, we recommend that a portion of the Infrastructure Act funding be used (e.g., as grants) to support respective federal and state agencies in conducting additional field surveys over the next 3-5 years, as needed, to significantly improve their inventories of orphaned wells. Such surveys should include a measurement of each well’s actual methane leakage, since that is or should be the most important criteria for determining well plugging priorities. Such information could then serve as a basis for prioritizing which wells to plug during the last 3-4 years of the current program and perhaps for justifying an extension of the program, if needed.
- Proximity to population densities – The OWTF should develop a 2-factor, graduated scoring system that relates to a) distance to nearest population center(s); and b) size/density of that population center. These criteria relate to the Infrastructure Act’s requirement that the priorities for plugging be based, in part, on public health and safety considerations. Population density and distance are practical indicators of the numbers of people who may be adversely affected by methane leakage from nearby orphaned wells.
- Distance to Class I areas under the Clean Air Act, as amended in 1977 – Section 162(a) of the federal Clean Air Act gives special air quality and visibility protection to national parks larger than 6,000 acres and national wilderness areas larger than 5,000 acres that were in existence when the Act was amended in 1977. In essence, Class I areas are protected under the Clean Air Act from air quality deterioration.It is well documented that methane emissions from orphaned wells and other sources contribute to the creation of ozone7https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/methane.html ; and ozone pollution degrades air quality and contributes human health problems. Given the high level of protection provided to Class I areas, the OWTF Force should develop criteria for prioritizing orphaned wells based on their relative distance to Class I areas (e.g., using a graduated scoring system based on distance). The criteria relates to the Infrastructure Act’s requirement that the priorities for plugging be based, in part, on potential environmental harm and other land use priorities. In this case, the potential harm(s) would be to the most pristine and highest-priority-to-conserve federally protected areas, which are national parks and designated wilderness.
3. Develop a quality assurance program to confirm and document the effectiveness of the well plugging program – The OWTF should identify or establish best practices or procedures for plugging wells to be applied to all well plugging operations that receive funding from this program regardless of jurisdiction. The procedures should include measuring for methane and other VOC leakage at the well site both before and after plugging to ensure the well is effectively sealed. The OWTF should also develop a standard interagency form or reporting system to be used by contractors for documenting each well that is plugged. A representative from the responsible federal or state agency should verify that well plugging operations are completed in accordance with the standard procedures. Completion of well plugging operations should then be incorporated into the national database.
B. The responsible agencies should revise and update applicable regulations and policies in order to address the root causes of orphaned wells – One of our biggest concerns is that the proposed well remediation program will spend over $4B to plug thousands of orphaned wells by 2030 (which is a good thing). However, doing that alone will not address the root causes that have created the problem in the first place, which in our view is inadequate reclamation bond requirements and ineffective oversight by state and federal regulators. Unless these shortcomings are addressed by the responsible agencies early in the program, hundreds if not thousands of “new” orphaned wells could be added to the backlog between now and 2030.
As you are no doubt aware, BLM is required under the Mineral Leasing Act to obtain adequate bonds or other financial assurance from operators before they can start drilling on federal lands. In the event an operating company dissolves or goes bankrupt, BLM uses the company’s bond to cover the costs of any remaining reclamation work. If the amount of the bond is insufficient, taxpayers are forced to cover the costs of reclaiming the abandoned wells.
BLM’s current minimum for a bond covering wells on an individual lease is $10,000; for a bond with statewide coverage it is $25,000, and for a bond with nationwide coverage $150,000. These rates are inadequate. According to a Government Accountability Office report published in 20198https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-19-615.pdf, the average value of bonds held by BLM in 2019 does not reflect the full reclamation costs for the wells they cover. In fact, 84 percent of bonds, covering 99.5 percent of wells, are not high enough to cover even the lower end of the estimated reclamation cost. As a result, the financial burden of cleaning up orphaned wells inevitably and consistently falls to taxpayers; or worse, many orphaned wells do not get cleaned up at all because the responsible agencies do not have sufficient funds to do so, which is reflective of the current situation. The obvious disparity in these cost figures represents a material shortcoming in the BLM’s oversight as well as policies. We imagine that the respective state agencies have similar shortcomings in their bonding requirements.
While the OWTF could serve as a forum for interagency discussion of bonding and oversight polices, it is ultimately up to individual agencies or states to address these shortcomings through regulatory or policy changes. As BLM establishes the performance grant program, we urge you to prioritize funding for regulatory improvement grants to state agencies that have or are developing rules demonstrated to help reduce future incidences of orphaned wells such as those that require full cost bonds (especially on transferred wells) or limit extensions or delays on permanent abandonment, over those with rules that make marginal improvements.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we note that until the BLM updates its own bonding and reclamation regulations, the problem of orphaned and idled wells on public lands will persist long after this pot of money is gone. As part of the proposed orphaned well program, it is essential that BLM take appropriate steps to hold oil and gas companies accountable for complying with well reclamation requirements, in part, by increasing the value of individual bonds and the minimum value of statewide bonds to reflect actual reclamation costs, then periodically adjust them for inflation; eliminating nationwide bonds; and improving data collection to identify and remedy the orphaned wells backlog.
In closing, we urge BLM and the respective state agencies to make the most of the incredible opportunity presented by the Infrastructure Act to not only plug existing orphaned wells but also to establish effective programs that would reduce or prevent the creation of new orphaned wells in the future. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important issue.
Michael B. Murray, Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
2 Massachusetts Ave NE, Unit 77436
Washington, DC 20013