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A Plan That Would Help the Climate and Laid-Off Fossil Fuel Workers

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The oil economy is in shambles. Fossil fuel companies can’t pay their loans, and bankruptcies are surging.

That means workers are getting laid off and oil wells are going idle and falling into disrepair, which can create environmental harm. But there’s a way to fix both problems: Creating a federal program to plug the growing number of out-of-use oil and gas wells. A new report published Monday shows that doing so could create 120,000 jobs and significantly reduce pollution.

Since covid-19 began to creep across the U.S in February, more than 76,000 U.S. oil and gas workers have lost their jobs. As the pandemic progresses, that number is projected to rise to 1 million.


“There is a clear need to support struggling oil and gas workers and their communities,” Daniel Raimi, senior research associate at Resources for the Future and one of the report’s co-authors, told Earther in an email.


The need to plug up orphaned wells is also clear. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the U.S. is home to 2.1 million unplugged abandoned wells that collectively emit about 280,000 metric tons of methane each year, an estimate that’s likely conservative. That’s a huge problem for nearby communities and the climate. Methane exposure has been linked to a vast array of health issues. The gas also heats the planet and is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The Canadian government is currently carrying out a $1.7 billion program to plug wells as part of its coronavirus response. But the U.S. program the report from Resources for the Future and Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy calls for would go further than Canada’s since the U.S. is home to far more abandoned wells and the program would aim to employ many more people. Though the costs of plugging and restoring well sites vary widely, the report estimates that average price could be roughly $24,000 per well on average, meaning the program could cost between $12 and $24 billion.


This is exactly the right time to make that investment. Amid the pandemic, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to funnel resources into climate programs that avert economic and environmental catastrophe. Doing so will also save money in the long run, protect workers, and prepare the U.S. for the 21st century economy to come.

The federal government has plunged some stimulus money into fossil fuel companies, but the investments haven’t necessarily been smart ones. It built in avenues for fossil fuel company executives to profit despite tanking demand, resulting in oil companies receiving nearly $2 billion. But that approach has enriched industry executives while abandoning workers. It also ensures the industry lumbers along a little longer and raises the risk of more orphan wells that will need to plugged down the road.


Several oil-producing states have requested federal coronavirus stimulus money to plug oil wells, and Joe Biden’s recently updated climate plan includes promises to invest in well cleanup. There’s some precedent for programs of this kind in the U.S. as well. In 2005, the federal government created a program for the federal government to support the plugging orphaned wells through the Energy Policy Act, but it was never funded by Congress. There’s no better time to give it a shot than now, though.

“Funding a program to plug large numbers of orphaned and abandoned wells offers the rare chance for a ‘win-win’ that can provide short-term economic stimulus for hard hit energy workers while also reducing climate change,” said Raimi.