October 26, 2023 | FEATURES | By Hannah Smith
The United States’ history of drilling for oil and mining for coal has disproportionately burdened indigenous communities.
Just in the month of September 2023, an estimated 559 abandoned oil and gas wells – falling into a category known as legacy pollution – were found across five indigenous reservations by the U.S. Department of the Interior, as reported by a Sep. 21 press release.
According to advisor for the Orphaned Well Program Office Peter Gallagher, while at least 4.6 million Americans live within about a half mile – and 14 million within one mile – of a documented abandoned oil and gas well, most are among low-income, minority and indigenous communities.
“Orphaned [abandoned] wells often disproportionately burden communities of color, low-income communities, and Tribal and indigenous communities through adverse impacts on drinking water, air quality and contamination of land, and these communities often have the least resources to respond to and address these hazards,” Gallagher said in an Oct. 16 interview.
Given the name “orphaned wells” by The Interior, oil and gas wells are often deserted by fossil fuel companies if their resources dry out, with many century-old wells dating back to a time when there were few regulations, according to “Environment & Energy Publishing.”
And these wells have deadly side effects.
“These wells can leak volatile organic compounds such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and exposure to these gases can result in the development of cardiovascular, neurological and respiratory problems,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher continued, “Wells can also leak hydrogen sulfide, a highly toxic gas that can cause near-immediate death upon exposure.”
In order to plug an abandoned well site, the department first assesses each well’s gas (such as methane or hydrogen sulfide) level to weigh its potential health and safety risks. Then, after debris is removed, cement is pumped downhole to prevent the migration of harmful fluids or gases into surrounding land and water, Gallagher said.
President Joe Biden allocated $40 million on Sep. 21 across 10 indigenous reservations in order for more abandoned oil and gas wells to be sealed, with more indigenous communities to be granted aid against legacy pollution in the near future, according to a press release from The Interior.
“Indigenous communities have long been disproportionately burdened by environmental (legacy) pollution,” Gallagher said.
Colorado’s Southern Ute Tribe, granted approximately $497,850 from the federal government, is among the 10 selected reservations in phase one of President Biden’s agenda to help tribal communities plug orphaned wells.
According to Southern Ute Communication Specialist Summer R. Begay, The Southern Ute Department of Energy and the Tribe’s Contracts and Grants Department applied for a grant under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Section 40601.
“[The Southern Ute Tribe’s] grant application was specifically tailored to secure funds for conducting technical and field investigations into legacy plugged and abandoned wells, ensuring their integrity and long-term environmental protection,” Begay wrote in the Southern Ute Tribe press release.
Southern Ute Chairman Melvin J. Baker also provided commentary on his gratitude for the grant.
“The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is honored to have been awarded this funding, which will serve as a valuable resource in furthering our commitment to a clean and sustainable future,” Baker wrote in a press release.
Osage Nation, located in Oklahoma, also applied for a grant via Law 40601.
“Starting in 1896 on our reservation, 150 water floods pumped saltwater and freshwater under pressure for secondary oil production that caused visible leaks at the surface and unseen in the subsurface,” Osage Nation Minerals Council geologist William Lynn told Smith in an Oct. 12 interview.
Osage had the largest amount of assessed legacy pollution present, with 290 wells plugged already in the month of September, and was thus given $19,100,414 by the Biden administration, according to The Interior.
“We have more oil and gas than a lot of counties, states and countries. There were around 50,000 wells drilled here,” Lynn said.
Other reservations granted funds via Law 40601 include Navajo Nation in Arizona, Otoe Missouria Tribe, Muscogee Nation, Chickasaw Nation and Kiowa Indian Tribe in Oklahoma, Chippewa Cree, Fort Peck and Fort Belknap in Montana.
“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to living up to our promises to Indian Country,” said Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland.
“As we steward these investments, we are working directly with Tribes every step of the way to ensure that their voices are integrated into decision-making processes. This is a key component of the President’s Investing in America agenda – building out the infrastructure to equip Tribes now and into the future,” Newland said.
The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission estimates the number of abandoned oil and gas wells remaining in the U.S. to be between 310,000 and 800,000.
However, due to poor record keeping during much of the industry’s century and a half of production, that number is likely even in the millions, as reported by Washington Postjournalist Brady Dennis.
“These legacy pollution sites are environmental hazards and jeopardize public health and safety by contaminating surface water and groundwater, emitting noxious gases like methane, littering the landscape with rusted and dangerous equipment and harming wildlife,” Gallagher said.