U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) visited the Permian Basin Tuesday, touring an orphaned oil well in the Hobbs area as he pushed legislation to fund the cleanup of wells abandoned by operators.
Oil wells may be abandoned by operators when they become uneconomical, and Lujan worried they can pose environmental hazards in emitting air and water pollutants when inactive and unmonitored.
In May 2020 as the pandemic took hold of New Mexico and the world, the State’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD) reported 708 abandoned wells throughout the state, while regulators had only about $2 million in financial assurances from operators to pay for the cleanup.
The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission reported more than 56,000 orphaned wells nationwide.
Locally, a June report from the National Parks Conservation Association found 198 abandoned wells within 30 miles of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
The OCD has the capacity to plug about 50 wells per year, per the OCD’s report. It can cost about $35,000 to plug a well, and $50,000 to $80,000 to remediate land in good condition.
The cost can climb into the millions if there is a history of environmental problems, per the OCD’s report.
Most abandoned wells are known to be on state land.
In the last fiscal year, the OCD filed 23 complaints which lead to $263,000 in fines against 13 operators who did not comply with requirements for inactive wells, representing about 200 such locations.
The OCD plugged 49 wells in FY 2020-2021.
To better help states like his own pay to solve the problem quicker as the world grapples with the effects of climate change brought on by such pollution, Lujan introduced the Revive Economic Growth and Reclaim Orphaned Wells (REGROW) Act in April in the U.S. Senate to unlock federal dollars to augment funding for the work.
The REGROW Act was included in a recent infrastructure package passed by the Senate and would appropriate $4.275 billion to clean up abandoned wells of state and private lands, and $400 million for clean up on federal land with an additional $32 million research on the issue.
During his recent trip to the Permian Basin, Lujan visited an abandoned well, one that was fully remediated and an active well to see how the process of cleaning up wells is undertaken.
“Orphaned wells pose serious public health and environmental risks for New Mexicans. As I toured orphaned well sites this afternoon, I saw firsthand the importance of cleaning up these sites to protect the environment and put New Mexicans back to work in the process,” Lujan said following the tour.
“I was proud to secure the REGROW Act as part of the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure legislation, and I’ll continue working with my colleagues to get these provisions across the finish line.”
Sarah Cottrell Propst, cabinet secretary of New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) – the OCD’s parent agency – said she hoped the senator’s visit would bring more awareness to the problem and support for the state’s effort to clean up the wells.
“EMNRD’s Oil Conservation Division staff were honored to provide Sen. Ben Ray Luján with a tour of orphan well sites to bring additional attention to the importance of plugging and remediating these areas,” Propst said.
“The REGROW Act would allow our Department to remediate more orphan wells, which protects our land, air, and water and reinvests in New Mexico communities. We thank the Senator for his support and look forward to continuing to work together to remediate more orphan wells.”
Lujan introduces bill to expand solar power access
New Mexico’s and potentially the nation’s most active energy development region was also host to Lujan’s announcement of a bill on Tuesday in Hobbs to bring community solar projects to localities across the U.S.
Community solar allows low-income or home renters who cannot afford or are not able to install rooftop solar panels to tap into shared developments to access solar power.
The New Mexico Legislature passed its Community Solar Act during the 2021 Legislative Session and work is ongoing to finalize the logistics of the program.
Lujan’s bill, the Community Solar Programs Act which he introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives when serving in that body, would require states to consider policies for community solar projects which supporters argued would expand access to renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions such as from energy sources like natural gas or coal.
“With a worsening climate crisis, it’s clear that Congress must act on climate. Thankfully, the technology exists to do just that, but most households and businesses lack access to costly technologies such as solar power,” Lujan said. “This legislation will help combat the climate crisis and create a pathway to good-paying clean energy jobs that will boost our economy.”
He said about half of American households cannot afford solar installations. New Mexico is one of 21 states that have begun developing their own community solar frameworks.
“The Community Solar Programs Act would provide federal legislation requiring state regulatory commissions to consider community solar rules, potentially bypassing the need for state legislation,” said Beth Beloff, executive director at the Coalition of Sustainable Communities New Mexico.
“This bill could result in increased adoption of community solar, resulting in more access and community choice to solar energy.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.