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Taxpayers shouldn’t pay to clean the oil and gas industry’s mess

In West Texas, an abandoned well leaks oil and produced water.

In West Texas, an abandoned well leaks oil and produced water.

Elizabeth Conley/Staff photographer

That’s right. Despite the oil and gas industry’s eye-watering profits in recent years, taxpayer funds still had to be used to ensure that their mess was cleaned up. And the mess is formidable. 

In Louisiana alone, oil and gas companies have abandoned over 20,000 wells in wetlands, fields and neighborhoods. Nationwide, that number is estimated to exceed 3 million.  


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In other words, there are millions of wells across America spewing methane gas into the atmosphere. Methane, of course, is a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere with 80 times as much efficiency as carbon dioxide. Plugging the wells left behind by the industry isn’t just a good idea; it’s an urgent matter to anyone who cares about mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. 

For people living near abandoned wells, the need to properly and safely plug them is even more urgent. These wells pose serious health threats to nearby residents, with some reporting symptoms ranging from dizziness and nausea to chronic respiratory ailments. Plugging a nearby abandoned well, for many Americans, is the only way to free themselves from a lifetime of health complications. 

To be even more blunt about it, abandoned wells are a ticking time bomb. A well in Louisiana exploded in 2021, injuring at least four. In Colorado, a previously dormant well destroyed a nearby home the second it was restarted. 

Oil and gas infrastructure abandoned by the industry is a constant menace to members of the public. Wells, tanks, and pipelines can be situated in residential areas, contain and emit combustible gases, and even explode.

Sadly, families residing near abandoned oil and gas infrastructure must live in a constant state of high alert. Wells may leak toxic and combustible gases in or near a person’s yard for years. Often, when wells are dug and left in a residential area, that residential area is disproportionately Black, low-income or both. Adults have to warn children not to play in the backyard for fear they could become sick — or be killed without a moment’s notice. 


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Continuing to leave wells unplugged simply isn’t an option. They pose an imminent threat to families who live nearby, and contribute to the greatest existential threat we face as a society today.

The trouble is the sheer number of wells and the overpowering cost to plug them. By any reasonable estimate, plugging the millions of wells abandoned by oil and gas companies will cost billions. Still, there are so many that even with billions in federal funding, workers are struggling to successfully keep up with all the wells to plug

It’s a shame American taxpayers have shelled out so much money to fix a problem the industry caused. To the extent that taxpayer funds have already been disbursed, the federal government must supervise how those dollars are put to use. For example, there must be a careful accounting of the cost of plugging each well to ensure public funds aren’t wasted. And no taxpayer funds should be used for sites where the private owner of a well is readily identifiable. In each of those instances, the company responsible for the well must be compelled to plug it. 

There is already ample legal precedent to compel companies at the state level. Louisiana, Wyoming, California and others have statutes and case law on the books that can be invoked to force the companies who first drilled a well to plug it at the end of its life. The legal term for this is “predecessor liability,” and in the most general sense, it means that the original owner of a well is responsible for cleanup, even after they have ceased using it or lease it to another company. 

Unfortunately, our lawyers tell me that Texas doesn’t have the same direct route to hold past well owners accountable. Unless a well is out of compliance at the time it’s sold, the responsibility for plugging it passes to the next owner. The silver lining is that in the Lone Star State, regulators do have the power to force others with interests in a well (such as investors) to plug it if the operator fails to do so.


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State environmental agencies and attorneys general must use whatever leverage they have to compel oil and gas companies to plug the wells they dug and abandoned. Only after this avenue is exhausted should taxpayer funds be spent on plugging wells. 

In America, we teach our children to clean up after themselves. It’s time we hold multinational, multi-billion-dollar corporations to this same basic level of responsibility.  

Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré (Ret.) led Joint Task…

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