Routt County urges Sen. Bennet to address abandoned oil, gas wells
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In a letter sent to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet earlier this week, Routt County commissioners pushed for greater action to address abandoned oil and gas wells.
“Oil and gas wells that are abandoned by companies without being fully plugged and reclaimed pose many risks to our communities and our nearby public lands,” the commissioners said in their letter.
Abandoned wells can leak methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. They also can leach toxins into groundwater, harm wildlife and livestock and impact other public lands resources and recreation opportunities, the commissioners said.
This has been a yearlong issue across Colorado, explained Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan. As of 2018, the latest date for which data is available, Colorado had 275 documented orphaned oil and gas wells, plus an estimated 200 undocumented abandoned wells, according to the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission. An orphaned well is one that an operator does not reclaim, often leaving the federal government to cover the cost of cleaning it up.
As of July 1, there were two orphaned wells in Routt County, according to a document from the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission. The local area is not a major producer of oil and gas, Corrigan said, but that could change in the future.
Corrigan was more concerned with two wells in neighboring Rio Blanco County near the border with South Routt on Dunckley Pass. As he described, the holding tanks are full of nasty sludge and debris, which he worries could leak into the ground or nearby creeks.
“I always thought they had the potential to affect the town of Oak Creek’s drinking water supply,” Corrigan said.
Five other counties sent their own letters to Sen. Bennet, a Democrat, urging him to support cleanup efforts and to sponsor legislation to improve the federal onshore bonding program. As the county leaders explained, the bonding program has not provided sufficient financial assurance to prevent orphaned oil and gas wells.
A 2019 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 84% of bonds are too low to adequately cover the costs of the reclamation they are meant to cover, consequently leaving the Bureau of Land Management to foot the bill.
“BLM regulations set minimum bond values at $10,000 for all of an operator’s wells on an individual lease, $25,000 for all of an operator’s wells in a state, and $150,000 for all of an operator’s wells nationwide,” according to the report. “However, when wells are not properly managed, the federal government may end up paying to clean up the wells when they stop producing.”
The Government Accountability Office estimates the total number of wells at risk of becoming abandoned could force the BLM to pay more than $331 million in reclamation costs, a cost that would also fall on taxpayers.
In its report, the Government Accountability Office said Congress should consider giving the BLM the authority to get funding from operators to adequately reclaim orphaned wells. It also recommended the BLM adjust bond amounts to cover reclamation costs.
Routt County commissioners pushed for similar action in their letter. While they acknowledge oil and gas development contributes to the state’s economy, the commissioners argued those economic benefits are diminished when taxpayers and government agencies have to bear the brunt of cleanup costs.
As they concluded, “Colorado’s public lands are important to our economy, too, and where oil and gas development occurs, it should be fully reclaimed to protect wildlife, recreation, and sustain our outdoor economy and environment for all Coloradans.”
Online readers can read the commissioners’ entire letter by clicking this link:
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