February 19, 2024

Press Contact: Paul Reed, pr***@ar******************.org

REPORT: Orphaned Wells and Abandoned Oil and Gas Infrastructure Pose a Significant Threat to Cultural Resources in the Southwest

New Report Explores Native American Tribal Concerns with Orphaned Wells and Discusses Common-Sense Solutions Needed for Addressing the Problem for the Long Term

(Tucson, AZ) – Today, Archaeology Southwest released a new report titled Orphaned and Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells in the Southwest: Implications for Protecting Sacred and Cultural Sites and Surrounding Landscapes. The report focuses on the impact of such wells to sacred and cultural sites in sensitive areas such as the Greater Chaco Landscape and Bears Ears National Monument as well as the impact to the frontline communities living in these areas. It also identifies what is needed to mitigate the current crisis, prevent the creation of additional orphaned and abandoned wells in the future, and address the root cause of the longstanding problem—including common-sense policy solutions that have been proposed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as part of its rulemaking process to modernize the federal onshore oil and gas leasing program. Long-overdue updates to federal bonding requirements are critical for holding oil and gas companies responsible for cleaning up the wells they drill on public lands, in order to protect cultural resources and sensitive landscapes from the continued threat of orphaned and abandoned wells in the future.

“The Southwest is characterized by its rich heritage and extensive network of cultural sites, yet oil and gas have dominated the region for decades. As a result, leasing and development have left a legacy of orphaned wells that have destroyed archaeological sites and turned sacred spaces into industrial sacrifice zones. Tribal communities and their cultural resources desperately need durable protections from the federal government to ensure that lands that never should have been made available for leasing in the first place are not further degraded,” said Paul Reed, Preservation Archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest and report author.

“The fact that we have 32,000 orphaned wells within 30 miles of National Parks here in the United States is a clear sign of a failed system. While progress has recently been made with funding provided under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to plug and reclaim a small portion of these wells, much more is still needed to put an end to this crisis for good. The Interior Department must work quickly to finalize its proposed oil and gas rule that will update federal bonding rates and ensure that the oil and gas companies who have been granted access to our public lands are the ones required to cover the full cost of clean up once they are done drilling on them. We cannot afford to allow the orphaned well crisis to grow even bigger and to continue to threaten America’s world-class National Parks,” said Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

In New Mexico, previous research has identified at least 2,269 orphaned wells across the state, 431 of which are within 30 miles of National Parks. Two hundred orphaned wells are within ten miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument alone. These abandoned and unmitigated wells can contaminate drinking water and leak toxic methane into the air, posing a significant threat to the region’s Tribal communities, many of which are already facing disproportionate impacts from oil and gas development.

“The past and current practice of oil and gas extraction has endangered life and land, and brought continuous contamination to the first peoples of America. Orphaned wells have impacted many areas, without thought to the consequences to the land and our people. Life and land are sacred and no amount of money will ever repair life or land once it is destroyed,” said Clark Tenakhungva, former Vice-Chairman of the Hopi Tribe of Arizona.

“The preservation of sacred and cultural sites in New Mexico, particularly in Greater Chaco, is of utmost importance to Indigenous communities. The potential and actual impacts of orphaned or abandoned oil and gas wells on these sites is a matter of deep concern. These sites are not only spiritually and historically significant, but they are also a vital part of Indigenous culture and heritage. Any damage or desecration caused by such activities is a violation of Indigenous rights and a threat to cultural heritage. In light of this, Indigenous people urge for stricter regulations, effective monitoring, and responsible remediation practices,” said Governor J. Michael Chavarria of the Pueblo of Santa Clara.

Similarly, in southeast Utah, there are hundreds of orphaned wells near National Parks, including many orphaned and abandoned well sites that are in close proximity to the sacred lands known as the Lands Between. This landscape, found just east of the Bears Ears National Monument and west of the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, is one of the ancestral and spiritual homes of the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, Rio Grande Pueblos, Nuche (Ute), Diné (Navajo), Paiute, and other Indigenous peoples, and is estimated to contain 50,000 sacred, cultural, archaeological, and historic sites dating back for 10,000 years.

Unfortunately, oil and gas companies have drilled dozens of oil and gas wells in the area, including several within the boundaries of or in close proximity to the Alkali Ridge National Historic Landmark, Hovenweep National Monument, and several other culturally sensitive areas. Although many of these wells have not produced oil or gas in years, they have not been properly plugged nor reclaimed by the companies that operate them. As a result, decaying pumpjacks, tanks, and other industrial infrastructure and equipment have been littered across the Lands Between region.

Following from critical solutions for addressing the root cause of the orphaned well problem on public lands that have previously been introduced in Congress, the Biden administration is now taking action to fix this problem for good. BLM’s proposed oil and gas rule will update decades-old federal bonding rates to ensure that oil and gas companies are held responsible for cleaning up their well sites on public lands, so that taxpayers aren’t forced to foot the enormous bill necessary for protecting these important areas from continuing to be further threatened in the future.