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US national parks plagued by 31,000 abandoned oil and gas wells leaking potent greenhouse gas methane

·3-min read
US national parks plagued by 31,000 abandoned oil and gas wells leaking potent greenhouse gas methane
Scotts Bluff National Monument at Gering, Nebraska. The National Parks site is surrounded by 1,751 abandoned wells, according to new analysis (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Scotts Bluff National Monument at Gering, Nebraska. The National Parks site is surrounded by 1,751 abandoned wells, according to new analysis (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

America’s national parks are plagued by tens of thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells, according to new analysis.

These orphaned wells, for which the owners have long since vanished or are now insolvent, spew super-potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, along with leaking brine into the groundwater at parks and nearby communities.

Dealing with abandoned wells and mines, some which have been unattended for decades, gets support from both Republicans and Democrats along with environmentalists and some industry bodies.

Methane is powerful but short-lived compared to fellow planet-heating carbon dioxide, the former lasting about a dozen years while CO2 hangs around for centuries. But in its relatively brief life span, methane traps dozens of times the heat of CO2. Tackling its release is crucial in battling the climate crisis.

Around 60 per cent of methane comes from human activity and the rest from wetlands and other natural sources. Of the man-made methane, about 35 per cent spews from drilling and transport of natural gas and oil; 20 per cent seeps out of landfills and 40 per cent comes from agriculture, mostly livestock.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition says that while methane does not directly harm human health, it forms the harmful air pollutant, tropospheric ozone, which makes up smog. This air pollution is responsible for an estimated 1 million premature respiratory deaths globally each year.

It has previously been difficult to get an overview of exactly where abandoned wells are located in the US but new mapping from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and FracTracker Alliance has discovered 214,538 sites, with 31,737 within 30 miles of a national park.

Clusters of abandoned wells stretch from coast to coast. For example, at Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska, there are 1,751 abandoned wells within 30 miles. There are 1,313 sites surrounding Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota’s Badlands there are 1,585 sites.

And there are 5,705 abandoned wells within a 30-mile radius of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California.

“This is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed by Congress to protect parks and public health, and prevent oil and gas companies from skipping town without cleaning up after themselves again in future,” says America Fitzpatrick, energy program manager at the NPCA.

The Interior Department has long led efforts to cap orphaned wells with its Abandoned Mine Land program that takes fees paid by coal companies to reclaim mines abandoned before 1977. About $8 billion has been disbursed to states for mine-reclamation projects in the past four decades.

President Joe Biden’s $2.3trillion infrastructure plan allocates $16 billion to plug the old wells and clean up mines.

Colorado Democratic Senator Michael Bennet has introduced a bill to create legislation around the abandoned wells with the aim of increasing cleanup while creating good-paying jobs to do it. It would also modernize agreements between fossil fuel companies and the US government so that the cost of future cleanup is shouldered by the oil and gas industry.

President Biden said in April that the goal was put those employed by the fossil fuel industry to work capping the wells “at the same price that they would charge to dig those wells”.

Research from Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy found that as many as 120,000 jobs could be created if half a million wells were plugged.

If human-caused methane emissions were slashed in half by the end of the decade, nearly a half-degree of global heating (0.3 degrees Celsius) can be prevented by 2050, the United Nations Environment Programme said last month.

That is a significant chunk as nations race to curb global heating, which is currently around 1.1C above preindustrial levels, “well below” 2C, and ideally 1.5C.

And because methane helps create smog, cutting annual emissions of the gas by 45 per cent or nearly 200 million tons could potentially prevent about 250,000 deaths a year worldwide from pollution-triggered health problems, the UN reported.

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