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As a farmer and former educator, I place a high value on taking care of the land and our environment and teaching future generations to be good stewards. So does every member of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

When it comes to our public lands, we all know it is imperative that they be cleaned up as soon as possible so that the health of our families and neighbors is not put on the line. 

Dale McCall

Coloradans know their livelihoods and identities are intertwined with the health of public lands. But a growing crisis of orphaned oil and gas wells on federal public lands threatens our tax dollars and the clean air and water our farmers, ranchers, and rural communities depend on.

An orphaned well is one that has stopped producing oil and gas. The original oil and gas company is no longer around to plug it properly and reclaim the surrounding land.

This is a serious problem for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities because leaking wells can cause groundwater pollution, tainting our drinking water, our crops, and the water for our livestock. They also leak toxic chemicals into the air and endanger wildlife. Cleaning them up is a priority.

Unfortunately, cleaning them up is not easy and comes at a steep cost: to restore a well can range from $30,000 up to $300,000 depending on the type of well and the depth involved. A recent report from the National Wildlife Federation and Public Land Solutions found at least 637 wells on federal public lands in Colorado that are either orphaned or at risk of becoming orphaned. The actual number likely is far greater, as the pandemic has caused a surge of oil-company bankruptcies and associated orphaned wells. 

Those who abandon these orphaned wells must pay the costs to clean them up. They rarely do, because the bonds they are required to put down, as a sort of insurance policy in case of bankruptcy, fall far short of actually covering the costs of cleanup. Little wonder: the bond prices were last adjusted in the 1950s and ‘60s.

In fact, in 2019, the Government Accountability Office found that because federal bonding rates are so insufficient, as many as 99 percent of existing bonds can’t cover potential cleanup costs. And when these bonds do not cover cleanup costs, taxpayers must make up the difference — to the tune of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars.

It is simply unacceptable for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities to bear the burden when oil and gas companies do not clean up after themselves. Yet, oil and gas companies continue to take advantage of a broken system that shifts cleanup costs from responsible parties to the public. Proper management and stewardship of our public lands means holding oil and gas companies accountable, while ensuring that orphaned wells get cleaned up now.

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is working to fix this problem at the federal level. He recently introduced legislation not only to increase funding to clean up these wells but also modernize bonding requirements to meaningfully reform the leasing system and ensure this situation does not happen again. States such as Colorado already are taking action to tackle this issue on state and private lands, but we need the federal government to commit to fixing the problem on federal public lands.

If we want to leave our federal public lands in pristine condition for future generations, we cannot let the toxic legacy of orphaned oil wells persist, leaving them behind for the rest of us to clean up. The Biden administration has made cleaning up orphaned wells a priority and is considering how best to address this problem as it reviews the federal oil and gas leasing program.

Congress should also work to pass reforms such as the one being advanced by Sen. Bennet. Addressing the current crisis to protect our land and the air and water farmers and ranchers – and the public – depend on is absolutely critical.

Oil and gas companies and others that profited from the original wells on public lands must be held accountable for all cleanup costs.

Dale McCall lives in Longmont and is president of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

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