One of the less obvious impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is the continued decline of oil and natural gas. Demand has dropped, and producers’ debt loads have increased, which may lead to an increase in orphaned wells. Orphaned wells hurt producers and those that live near oil and gas wells, they are responsible for greater pollution than active wells, and they cost taxpayer money to clean and remediate. Pollution from oil and gas aggravate respiratory conditions and worsen the impacts of COVID-19. New Mexico is particularly vulnerable to these impacts unless we act.
To protect New Mexicans from the negative health impacts of abandoned oil and gas wells along with accompanying risk from COVID-19, we recommend that state and federal policy-makers take the following actions:
Stop Relaxing Environmental Regulations
The current pandemic does not offer cause to relax environmental regulations. People still live in communities surrounding oil and gas and relaxed regulations increase their exposure to pollution. New Mexico has made progress on ozone clean-up, but reduced regulations could reverse that progress.
Publish Requests for Regulatory Waivers and Extensions
People have a right to know what oil and gas producers are not up to code. Creating a public record of requests for waivers and extensions allows those living near oil and gas wells to have more information about actions that affect their health, and creates accountability for producers that may otherwise abuse the waiver system.
Require Producers to Notify Communities About Emitted Pollutants
Many people in New Mexico are not notified about the pollutants emitted by oil and gas wells. Information about when emissions are at their peak allows people to make informed choices about their health. Many of us do not have a choice of neighbor and we should be able to know about the health impacts of oil and gas production that affect us.
Amend the Plugging and Abandonment Rules
Inactive wells are required to be shut-in, but these wells are still responsible for pollution. In some cases, shut-in wells are more dangerous because they are subject to less frequent inspection. Current rules and extensions allow producers to leave their wells shut-in for up to four years before they are subject to plugging and remediation. To protect the health of New Mexicans, producers should be required to plug their wells sooner, and to submit compliance reports on inactive wells more regularly.
Create an Abandoned Well Clean-Up Fund
There are more than 700 orphaned wells in New Mexico that will require plugging and remediation. The total cost of remediation may cost up to $24 million, but state and producer contributions are only enough to cover about $3 million. While it would not replace all the revenue or jobs lost to the pandemic, an abandoned well clean-up fund would allow New Mexico and other states to plug abandoned wells while stimulating the economy and creating jobs.
Increase Bonding Requirements
While federal funds may help to create jobs, it still puts the burden of remediation on the government, rather than the producer who abandoned the well. Proper bonding is a way to ensure responsible production and limit the risk of pollution, but bonding in practice has not kept up with the actual costs of remediation. Bonding rates should be increased to reflect the actual cost of remediation, so that New Mexicans are not left on the hook to clean up orphaned wells.
What Can I Do?
Contact your legislator and let them know your concerns. You can find your legislator at https://nmlegis.gov/Members/Find_My_Legislator. Let them know that you care about the impacts of oil and gas on your community.
Your efforts to respond to this challenge are greatly appreciated. Please contact us at any time should
questions arise regarding any of these recommendations.
Barbara K Webber