Guest Post: Protect our public lands from the consequences of this recession

A BLM intern works to identify idle oil wells and urge operators to either put them back in production or plug them permanently. Abandoned oil and gas wells can be pathways for methane to leak into the atmosphere. (Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management)
A BLM intern works to identify abandoned oil wells and urge operators to either put them back in production or plug them permanently. (Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management)

The long-term economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to be profound, affecting nearly all sectors of our lives. One effect that hasn’t received much attention is the toll it could have on our public lands. Since the oil markets have bottomed out, many small energy suppliers are expected to declare bankruptcy.  According to Pickering Energy Partners, some 40% could declare bankruptcy over the next two years. When that happens, companies often abandon oil and gas well sites, leaving the mess for others to clean up.  Abandoned wells in the West already pose huge risks to our lands, waters and wildlife.

 Here in Colorado, our public lands are integral to our livelihood: supporting recreation and fueling local economies. The state’s 22 million acres of public land attract tourists from all walks of life and support outdoor retailers and a $28 billion dollar outdoor recreation economy. These cherished lands draw in new businesses and residents, and provide a place for people to hunt, hike, bike, camp, fish and so much more. 

 To conserve and reclaim these special places for generations to come, we believe that any industry that relies on our shared natural resources should subscribe to the philosophy of leaving places as they were found. Unfortunately, the outdated federal oil and gas management system has allowed companies to turn their backs on this fundamental ethical principle, abandoning hundreds, if not thousands, of oil and gas wells across the state, putting our  public lands at risk. 

 It’s time for oil and gas companies to be held accountable for cleaning up the areas they drill. For too long, the federal government’s outdated policies have given companies a free pass to walk away from oil and gas wells on public lands — leaving dangerous and decaying infrastructure behind that threatens wildlife habitat, water resources, and recreation opportunities. According to a recent report, the current reclamation bonds paid by industry total just $162 million, far below the estimated $6.1 billion needed to clean up wells on federal lands. 

 Sportsmen and women in Colorado, and visitors to the state’s public lands, have witnessed this problem first hand. Based on data from the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), there are nearly 9,000 “shut-in” wells in Colorado — wells that are theoretically capable of production but have been closed for whatever reason. As of last fall, at least 15 of these “shut-in” wells were located on federal lands in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Durango, which is home to significant cultural and recreational resources enjoyed by 30,000 visitors each year. Several of these wells are operated by bankrupt or distressed operators, like D.J. Simmons. Yet, under the current outdated system, taxpayers — not industry— may be forced to clean-up these wells and restore damaged resources within the national monument. We say enough is enough. 

 Wildlife, recreationists, and Colorado’s communities deserve better. Important places like the White River watershed in northwestern Colorado, where sportsmen and women go for recreation, should not be unsafe to enjoy and explore due to abandoned wells.  The  health and well-being of wildlife should not be jeopardized because of polluted groundwater and fragmented landscapes. The time to address insufficient federal bonding rates is now. A recent GAO report found that 99.5 percent of oil and gas wells on public lands may not have high enough bonds to fully cover the cost of reclamation. This means 99.5 percent of the time, the burden could fall to Coloradans to pay for clean-up costs and resolve threats to our watersheds, wildlife and the environment.

 As long as operators are not held accountable for the costs of cleaning up and restoring our public lands, inactive wells across Colorado and the West will continue to pose serious risks. It’s time for this to change: leaders in Colorado must take action to hold oil and gas companies accountable for cleaning up after themselves, so that recreationists, wildlife, and visitors to Colorado’s public lands no longer have to bear the burden of these outdated policies. 

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact or visit our submission page.

Kent Ingram is an avid hunter and a board member of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
Dennis Dougherty is the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO and is the co-chair of the Colorado BlueGreen Alliance.