Broken federal oil and gas leasing program in dire need of new path forward

Congress should follow Sen. Bennet’s lead on orphaned wells

An aerial view of oil and gas infrastructure in the North Fork Valley of Colorado. (Courtesy of EcoFlight)

When the Biden administration announced a decision to temporarily pause all new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands, they recognized what Coloradans have known for a long time: The oil and gas leasing system is not working in the people’s interest and is in desperate need of an overhaul.

We have watched as oil and gas development have closed in on our iconic landscapes while our air and water suffered and without any economic benefits to Coloradans. This had to change, and during the Interior Department’s public forum to review the federal leasing system, a new and better path forward was charted.

Colorado’s beautiful iconic public lands make this state what it is. It provides the great outdoor opportunities that Colorado is known and loved for, like skiing, camping, hiking, and hunting, while supporting a thriving outdoor recreation economy that provides $2 billion in state and local tax revenue while sustaining 149,000 jobs. The preservation of our public lands is essential to the well-being of Colorado and its people. We must protect it at all costs.

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But the current federal oil and gas leasing system does not reflect the value our public lands have for Coloradans — it only reflects the bottom line for oil and gas executives. Practically every part of the leasing system is not working for Colorado and leaves the taxpayers and communities across the state in the dust.

We heard recently at the public forum, decades-old policies fail to hold oil and gas companies accountable for cleaning up orphaned wells on federal lands and it means taxpayer dollars must be spent fixing the industry’s problems. A recent report from the National Wildlife Federation and Public Land Solutions found that 637 federal wells in Colorado are orphaned or at risk of being so. There are a whopping 8,050 at-risk wells on public lands across Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and the clean-up cost on the taxpayers’ bill for those wells could exceed over $1 billion. Nationwide, it is estimated that the oil and gas industry has abandoned over 2 million oil and gas wells without properly plugging or reclaiming them. We cannot allow this to continue any longer.

Nationwide, it is estimated that the oil and gas industry has abandoned over 2 million oil and gas wells without properly plugging or reclaiming them. We cannot allow this to continue any longer.

Orphaned wells are clearly an economic threat, but the clear public health and environmental dangers they pose as they pollute groundwater, leak methane and toxic gases, and endanger wildlife is even more atrocious. It has become a full-blown crisis — so much that it is imperative that they be fully cleaned up and the surrounding lands be reclaimed. Furthermore it is completely unacceptable that Coloradans would be charged for this instead of the companies responsible for these actions.

This is one of many problems the Biden administration must solve, and we must seize the opportunity to evaluate solutions. One such solution comes from Colorado’s own Sen. Michael Bennet, who last Congress introduced a bill to hold companies accountable for cleaning up wells while also providing funds for quality jobs to do the cleanup. Bennet must reintroduce this crucial legislation and it must be passed and serve as just one example of what the Biden administration can do to reform the leasing system. Colorado is one of several states already taking action to address this crisis at the state level but we need a strong partner in the federal government to get it done.

The Biden administration is working to hear from a variety of stakeholders about the urgent need to reform the antiquated federal leasing program. They will issue a report with recommendations early this summer, but in the meantime Congress should continue pushing common-sense reforms like the one from Bennet and work with the administration to make sure our precious public lands are valued the way Coloradans expect them to be.

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