U.S. Secretary of Labor visits Kirtland, talks about bills to fund orphaned wells cleanup

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

KIRTLAND — U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh visited an inactive well site here on Aug. 25 to talk about bills that seek federal funding for nationwide cleanup of orphaned wells – an issue he said is among the Biden administration's priorities.

Such action is included in or the focus of bills before Congress, including the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which proposes funding to cap orphaned well sites under the $21 billion for environmental remediation projects.

In April, U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., introduced a bill to clean up more than 56,000 known orphaned oil and gas wells across the United States.

This bill would invest $8 billion to help stimulate rural economies and create jobs cleaning up these sites on federal, state, private and tribal lands. It would increase minimum bonding amounts for well operations.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh visits an inactive well site on Aug. 25 in Kirtland.

Separate legislation, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, calls for $4.7 billion for well cleanup on state and private lands.

State agencies have been struggling to cover the cost of cleanup activities, which can occur when operators abandon sites or bonding does not cover the cost.

"It's a big issue for our country. It's a big issue for the environmental aspect of our country so we're excited about this," he said adding cleanup activities are a source of job creation.

Leger Fernández and Walsh visited an area that has a pumpjack and tank near cornfields, and an elementary school is nearby.

New Mexico Oil Conservation Division Director Adrienne Sandoval, left, explains on Aug. 25 how operations are cleaned up at well sites during a visit to Kirtland.

The congresswoman advocated for her bill, explaining that orphaned wells contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, an action that does not benefit state revenues.

"The landowner allowed us to come on and look at this mess. You can’t describe it as anything other than a mess. It's on a daily basis harming our environment and it's not producing anything," Leger Fernández said.

New Mexico Oil Conservation Division Director Adrienne Sandoval said the well they visited was inactive and has been that way for a long time.

A wellhead is pictured on Aug. 25 in Kirtland.

"New Mexico has a long history of production over 100 years. Unfortunately means that we do have a collection of orphaned wells within the state," Sandoval said.

There are more than 700 orphaned wells in New Mexico.

The bipartisan infrastructure package would provide states with opportunities to do more plugging and cleanup work, Sandoval said, then added that the department contracts with local companies to complete the work.

Aztec Mayor Victor Snover said he views the federal proposals as job opportunities for communities like Aztec.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., stands near an inactive well site on Aug. 25 in Kirtland.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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