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In a win for our climate, the Biden administration has agreed to reconsider oil and gas leasing across 4 million acres—more than 6,200 square miles!—of public lands in the Western United States.

The agreements result from a suite of groundbreaking climate lawsuits filed by WildEarth Guardians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Western Environmental Law Center. You, your actions, and your financial support made this victory possible!

In three settlements upheld by a federal judge this month, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to reassess and reconsider more than 2,000 oil and gas leases in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Most of these leases were approved by the Trump administration, which sought to sell as many acres of public lands as possible to the oil and gas industry. Under Trump, science and the law took a back seat to the greedy demands of Big Oil companies like Exxon and Chevron.

Our settlement stems from a landmark court ruling we secured in 2019, holding that the Interior Department illegally ignored the cumulative climate consequences of selling public lands for fracking.

When oil and gas leases are sold, it conveys a right for industry to develop, guaranteeing that more dirty fossil fuels will be extracted and burned, only to flood the atmosphere with more climate pollution. Fracking and associated development on public lands also threaten critical wildlife habitat and fragment ancient migration routes of pronghorn and mule deer.

After our 2019 court win, we sued AGAIN in 2020 and AGAIN in 2021, confronting the Trump administration’s absolute climate denial. In response to our pressure, the Biden administration has thankfully agreed to do the right thing.

But if we have any chance of confronting the climate crisis, we have to stop leasing public lands for fracking—which means we still have much work to do.

I know we will be in the courts again and again in the coming months and years to defend our climate, public lands, and wildlife habitat. This is where we need your help today.

Please support our Keep It in the Ground Fund with a gift of $50, $100, $250, or more—so we can build on this victory across 4 million acres!

Together we’ll keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.

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For too long, the Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico, southwest Colorado, southeast Utah, and northeast Arizona has been under siege by fracking. Thankfully we have a chance to turn the tide for this sacred landscape.

Take action by May 6, 2022 to ensure the Biden administration follows through with their promise to protect Greater Chaco!

With Chaco Culture National Historical Park at its center, Greater Chaco is the cultural heart of the American Southwest. Navajo communities call the region home, the Pueblo Tribes of New Mexico hold deep ancestral ties to the landscape, and the area is spiritually significant for countless other Tribes and Indigenous Peoples.

Unfortunately, the land, its people, and the cultural fabric of Greater Chaco have been under assault by the oil and gas industry. Fracking has exploded across the landscape, putting communities at risk, despoiling sacred landmarks, and irreparably degrading Chacoan ruins and other culturally significant sites.

We can change this, but we need your help. Weigh in by May 6 to ensure the Biden administration honors the Greater Chaco region and confronts the oil and gas industry.

At the end of last year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland kicked off an Honoring Chaco Initiative aimed at protecting the Greater Chaco landscape. As the first order of business, she announced plans to ban fracking within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon.

This is good, but we need to ensure Secretary Haaland’s Honoring Chaco Initiative goes ALL THE WAY.

Landscape-level protection for Greater Chaco is the only solution for protecting Navajo communities, the cultural integrity of the entire landscape, clean air and water, and more.

Tell Secretary Haaland that ALL the Greater Chaco landscape needs to be protected, including the 10 miles around Chaco Canyon. Speak out, send your letter today.

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In a victory for Colorado’s clean air, our climate, and environmental justice, we just won a lawsuit over the Suncor oil refinery’s toxic air pollution!

Now we need your help to truly confront this dangerous polluter and have a chance at shutting it down once and for all. Take action today and help us put an end to Suncor’s reign of pollution terror.

The Suncor oil refinery— in Commerce City, north of Denver—is the poster child for climate and environmental justice in Colorado. Its toxic air pollution, including hydrogen cyanide, benzene, and other gases, disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income families, all while fueling the climate crisis. Too often, this pollution has been illegal. Making matters even worse, officials have illegally let Suncor operate under outdated air pollution permits for years.

That’s why we sued last year. In a landmark case, we challenged Colorado’s failure to take action on the refinery’s pollution permits. On January 10, a judge ruled in our favor and ordered the state to act “without further delay.”

It’s a big win, but we need your help to make sure Colorado Governor Jared Polis and his public health officials follow through. We need to make sure that they do the right thing and deny Suncor’s permits.

The Suncor oil refinery is Colorado’s number one environmental injustice. It’s also one of the largest sources of climate pollution in the state. We can’t afford to let up the pressure.

We’ve delivered justice in the courtroom, but now we need to deliver justice in real life. Speak out for justice and demand real action on the Suncor oil refinery. Join us in calling on Governor Jared Polis to stop delaying and start putting people before polluters.

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You’d think the oil and gas industry was still running the U.S. Department of the Interior, given one of the agency’s most recent actions.

That’s because on “Black Friday”—in the clutter of the holiday rush—the agency buried a report that was supposed to call for bold action to fulfill President Joe Biden’s promise to confront the climate crisis and address climate justice in the United States.

The Black Friday report means more climate delay instead of bold climate action. It’s another black eye for the Interior Department, confirming the agency has no intent of real climate leadership to rein in fossil fuel extraction.

That’s why I’m asking you to help WildEarth Guardians’ audacious and necessary Keep It in the Ground campaign to end fossil fuel extraction from public lands. We’ve fought climate denial and climate delay—whether from Trump or Biden. Please help us keep up the fight by supporting this work with a donation of $50, $100, $250, $500, or more today.

On Friday, November 26—the day after Thanksgiving—the Interior Department released a report claiming to respond to President Biden’s order directing the agency to prepare a comprehensive review and reconsideration of the federal oil and gas leasing and permitting program, taking into account the impacts of climate change and corresponding climate costs.

The report, however, presented no assessment of the climate impacts and made no recommendations for addressing the climate costs of the federal oil and gas leasing program. Incredibly, the word “climate” is mentioned only twice in the entire 14-page report!

Instead, the report papered-over climate concerns, and offered recommendations that promote more oil and gas leasing and extraction and generate more revenue for the oil and gas industry.

Make no mistake: not only would following the recommendations in the report undermine desperately needed climate action, but it would seal the fate of climate-imperiled species like the Joshua tree, wolverine, and Sonoran desert tortoise.

At best, Interior’s Black Friday news dump is outright climate denial. At worst, it’s deliberately deceptive and nothing more than a shill for the fossil fuel industry’s bottom line. Either way, the Interior Department is failing the climate.

We won’t stand for it, and neither should you. Your generous support has been a critical ingredient in our successful climate defense work over the past decade, and your continued support will propel us forward in the new year.

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Fracking in the Greater Chaco landscape of northwest New Mexico. Photo by Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance.

There’s no denying it. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plans to “kick start the hydrogen fuel industry” is nothing short of a scheme to subsidize oil and gas companies and keep the state dangerously reliant on fossil fuels.

“Dirtier Than Coal”

In her proposed “Hydrogen Hub Act,” which was unveiled last month, the governor claims that producing hydrogen would represent a climate and clean energy “solution.” Unfortunately, the only thing hydrogen stands to fuel is the climate crisis.

For one, hydrogen is currently produced using methane gas.  In other words, the “gas” in oil and gas. Converting methane to hydrogen not only promotes more oil and gas extraction (i.e., fracking), but in doing so creates carbon dioxide as methane molecules are split into carbon and hydrogen. To boot, converting methane to hydrogen requires enormous amounts of energy, energy that today mainly comes from the burning of fossil fuels.

It’s a filthy process that scientists have found is dirtier than coal. Worse, by promoting more fracking, this method of manufacturing hydrogen stands to perpetuate environmental injustice, air and water pollution, and damage to public lands and sacred landscapes in New Mexico.

It’s no wonder that opposition to the governor has been resounding.

In comments spearheaded by the Western Environmental Law Center and joined by WildEarth Guardians and dozens more health, Indigenous, climate, and community organizations, the message was clear: the governor’s “Hydrogen Hub Act” is “fatally flawed.”

In statements offered last week, Tribal, community, and climate groups condemned the governor’s push for hydrogen as an unjust scheme to prop up the oil and gas industry. The groups specifically highlighted that the state’s move to promote hydrogen threatens the sacred Greater Chaco landscape, a region the Biden administration has sworn to protect.

“The proposed hydrogen legislation is a way to crutch the fossil fuel economy when Indigenous Pueblos have advocated to end fossil fuel extraction in the Greater Chaco landscape. Hydrogen is a continuum of the fossil fuel economy that our communities don’t want.”

– Pueblo Action Alliance

“Green” in Name Only

While it’s true that hydrogen can be produced using water (often referred to as “green hydrogen”), the notion that New Mexico would literally burn away its dwindling water supply is outright insane.

Most importantly, the amount of energy required to convert water to hydrogen is astronomical, requiring far more energy to create than even fossil fuels. Adding injury to insult, energy today is still largely fossil fuel-derived, meaning the energy required to turn water into hydrogen would inevitably fuel massive amounts of coal, oil, and gas consumption, leading to more climate pollution.

Boosters of hydrogen, like Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, claim this energy problem can be solved in one of two ways:  1) hydrogen can be created using renewable energy and 2) carbon emissions from fossil fuel energy production can be captured and stored underground.

On the latter, carbon capture and sequestration is still a failed fantasy and at best has yet to achieve any level of commercial viability. Critically, however, the energy required to capture carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and permanently store them underground is itself astronomical. More energy means more fossil fuel burning, perpetuating the cycle of climate destruction.

New Mexico’s governor has argued that renewable energy could simply be used to meet all the energy needs of creating hydrogen, whether it’s powering direct production of the gas and/or energizing carbon capture and storage operations.

Of course, this is where the concept of hydrogen production veers from lunacy to an outright assault on the climate.

Climate Killer

That’s because calls for renewable energy to power the creation of hydrogen are essentially calls to slow, if not halt, our world’s transition away from burning fossil fuels for electricity. Essentially, every bit of renewable energy used to create hydrogen is a bit of renewable energy that is unable to replace coal, oil, and gas-fired power generation.

This where the insidiousness of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s push for hydrogen really comes into focus. Her plan wouldn’t just promote more fracking, it would slow the New Mexico’s efforts to move away from coal and gas-fired power, effectively stalling the build-out of clean renewable energy to replace dirty fossil fuels.

This is shocking, but it’s all the more shocking coming from a governor who proclaims herself to be a leader in confronting the climate crisis.

As scientist warn that an expeditious move away from coal, oil, and gas consumption and production is needed to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, New Mexico can’t afford to slow down a transition from fossil fuels.

The prospect of New Mexico building out a hydrogen industry is about as anti-climate as you can get.  By pushing her “Hydrogen Hub Act,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham isn’t just promoting a false climate solution, she’s promoting a climate killer.

Take Action

With the New Mexico Legislature set to begin in early 2022, it’s more critical now than ever to fight back against the “Hydrogen Hub Act” and ensure the governor backs down from the idea that hydrogen is a climate solution. If the governor and Legislature are serious about climate action, then they need to get serious about transitioning the state away from fossil fuels and to 100% renewable energy ASAP.

You can help deliver this message, send an e-mail today to hydrogen.feedback@state.nm.us, tell the governor to abandon her “Hydrogen Hub Act.”  Tell her to get behind making New Mexico the first state to commit to a future 100% powered by renewable energy and 100% free of fracking and energy injustice.

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President Biden is working furiously to undo Trump’s wretched environmental rollbacks, including restoring our nation’s bedrock environmental law—the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

With your help and your voice, we can ensure the Biden administration follows through to protect clean air and water, communities, public lands, wildlife, and more. Sign the petition today to restore NEPA!

Described as our nation’s basic charter for environmental protection, the National Environmental Policy Act holds the federal government accountable to people and the planet. The law guarantees the public is informed of the environmental impacts of federal actions and has a chance to influence decision-making.

Unfortunately, corporate polluters, resource exploiters, and their cronies in the Trump administration launched an unprecedented assault on NEPA, erasing safeguards and rolling back protections.

Thankfully, thousands of Guardians like you have taken action this year to restore NEPA, and now the Biden administration is wasting no time undoing Trump’s assault on the environment. Let’s make sure they stay on track. Sign the petition today!

We know firsthand that without NEPA, we can’t keep our air clean, our water pure, our communities safe, public lands protected, or achieve environmental justice. Join us in speaking out to restore the National Environmental Policy Act! Add your name before the November 22 public comment deadline.

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I was ecstatic when President Joe Biden, in late January, took executive action halting new oil and gas leasing on America’s public lands and offshore waters. It was an accomplishment that required millions of people to speak out because we know that addressing the climate crisis requires bold action.

But I was also realistic, fully aware that the fossil fuel barons—and the politicians they fund—would immediately fight to overturn President Biden’s order. At WildEarth Guardians, we knew we still had plenty of work to ensure just and equitable action for the climate, frontline communities, and our future.

In June, Republican-led states beholden to the oil and gas industry got a federal judge to order the Biden administration to restart the sale of oil and gas leases on public lands. On August 31, the administration announced its intention to auction off more than 740,000 acres in states including Montana, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Mississippi, and Alabama.

As our relentless Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols, told the national media, “These new plans to sell public lands for fracking are nothing but a shattered promise from the Biden administration to put climate, justice, and health first. Rest assured, we will be doing everything within our power to block these plans.”

Stand with us for climate action and climate justice: Demand President Biden keep his promise to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.

More than a decade ago, Guardians set forth on an audacious campaign to defend the climate and end the sale of dirty fossil fuels from public lands. You have been with us every step of the way. We are not about to give up now, and neither should you.

We simply can’t frack our way to a safe climate and can’t afford to keep selling public lands to the oil and gas industry. Join me in telling President Biden to keep his climate promises. Speak up and demand action today.

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My time in New Mexico public education certainly taught me one thing—that our public schools are woefully ill-equipped to prepare the next generation with the tools we need to solve the climate crisis.

I remember feeling hopelessly defeated when I first realized how quickly the world was changing due to climate change. I was eight years old, listening to my third grade teacher explain that fossil fuels, the United States main source of energy, would be all used up by the time we were her age. I was sitting next to the people I would spend the next few years with, all of us unprepared for our uncertain futures ahead. We were all shocked when my teacher’s next words were, “And it’s up to your generation to figure out what to do! Good luck!”

Hungry for action, my classmates and I banded together to form an “earth club,” buying beans and paper cups, planting seeds in wet paper towels. We nourished and cared for our little bean seedlings in the weeks that followed, as if we were nourishing our future. And though I can look back fondly at that time, the truth is, I knew even then that well-meaning efforts failed to address the root of the problem.

From kindergarten to high school, everything I’ve learned in class was rooted in the same perspective, a story of infinite entitlement with no consequence. Our history was taught from the exclusive vantage of heroic colonizers, scrubbed clean of actual deaths, their horrendous crimes tucked away into footnotes, if present at all. The exploitation of New Mexico’s land and people was always taught to be a victory. There were no stories offered to challenge this perspective, or to promote a worldview where the extraction of resources and people would be more perilous than celebratory.

I remember my sophomore year, when I took my first class in New Mexico history. We read a romanticized story about a European woman who settled in the New Mexico desert to escape the east coast industrialization. Her diary was rooted in entitlement as she wrote about her annoyances over those city dwellers who followed her out into the desert, occupying ‘her land.’ In class, I expected to discuss the irony of her frustration, especially as a newcomer to New Mexico in the early 20th century after centuries of settlements. But we never did.

Sure, we learned about the skinning, raping, and the stealing of land and people, and of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but we acted as if these historic events and their consequences were safely frozen in time. As if the crimes of our ancestors have no impact on us today. Our education never explored the consequences of colonization, which would have better prepared us to reckon with the trials of climate change and resource colonialism today. We never talked about the fatal flaws of creating an economy based on the extraction of land, lives, and livelihoods and how that practice would ultimately create fossil fuel barrons and climate catastrophes.

Outside of school, I learned about the stranglehold the oil and gas industry has had on almost every aspect of New Mexico policy and way of life. Touting its funding of public education, the oil and gas industry threatens the state with financial collapse if we dare to choose a different path beyond modern-day resource colonialism.

New Mexico has been a resource colony even before it was a state. Now, New Mexico is the second biggest oil producing state in the nation, with little to show for it beyond a legacy of sacrifice zones.  Our state ranks lowest in the nation for public education, with the lowest overall opportunity and quality of life, and the highest rates of childhood poverty and hunger. New Mexican families are losing their homes and their land while their children attend schools funded by the culprits.

From one election year to another, oil and gas companies pour millions of dollars into political campaigns, as we all witness the barrage of attack ads on anyone that would challenge the status quo of colonialism. New Mexico politicians tell us that being a resource colony and extracting oil and gas means improving our state, giving us more to spend on education and on the future of our children.  Rooted in a sense of infinite entitlement with no consequence, they promise endless profit through the destruction of our lands and culture. They promise better education for students while they frack away our future.

Children of the 21st century are the ones forced to reckon with these broken promises. We have learned from a young age that our way of life is not sustainable simply by witnessing the world around us change.

We’ve seen years of drought and forest fires, rising temperatures and destructive oil spills.  We’ve seen firsthand the ecosystems that once thrived in the Rio Grande visibly struggle as countless species face extinction, the river itself drying up for more miles each year than ever before. We’ve watched forest fires shroud our horizons, no longer a seasonal event, but now a season in and of itself.

The world is changing.  Generation Z can’t look to the future with the same hope that previous generations have. We have grown up in the shadow of fear, uncertainty and denial. There is no certainty of a steady career path, no promise that the home our family has built will still be here decades down the road. We have no hope of a vocation that can protect us from the fallout of compounding crises that come with climate change.

Even today, public schools teach little, if anything, about how to move beyond the extractive industries that have bled our state dry. Everything I’ve learned about solutions for a better future, I’ve learned from tidbits in newspapers, from my family, and from activists and advocacy organizations. Certainly not from my public education, from the politicians I watch on TV,  or from the industries that perpetuate the problem.

If our leaders fail to reckon with the colonial mindset and centuries of resource extraction, they will perpetuate the sacrifice of our land and people. By not addressing the need for systemic reform, for true justice and reconciliation, we remain on the path to nowhere, with no tools to face the challenge ahead.

The Biden Administration has promised to finally reconcile the federal oil and gas leasing program with climate realities, accounting for the cumulative impacts of oil and gas on climate, culture, and communities. So far, President Biden has yet to deliver, as the administration just announced its intent to lease more than 700,000 acres of public lands for more fracking across the West. That’s why WildEarth Guardians is asking the public to demand President Biden keep his promise to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.

If promises are kept, we have a chance to turn the page and end an era of extractive colonialism, but the shackles of oil and gas seem to drag our leaders behind.

When the Biden Administration first called for a halt to new oil and gas leases, New Mexico’s own Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham opposed. She echoed the threats of industry—a worse-off New Mexico with less oil and gas, less money towards public education. But we’re already leading the nation in oil and gas pollution, at the bottom of all the best lists and at the top of all the worst ones. If Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to improve the education of students of New Mexico, why is she allowing our future to be fracked away? Why isn’t she demanding Biden keep his promise?

To better prepare students to solve the problems of today, we can no longer follow the culprits and the colonized mindset that brought us here. By holding public education hostage to oil and gas revenue, our politicians are not only sentencing students to a poor education, they are also auctioning off our livelihoods.

My generation has risen up, not by desire but by necessity. Now, our leaders must step up, turning their climate rhetoric into actual policy, abandoning the colonizing mindset for a frame of climate justice. We simply cannot afford the continued sacrifice of our land, lives, and livelihoods to more broken promises.

You can listen to an auto-recording of this piece here:


Elia Vasquez is a WildEarth Guardians intern and a sophomore at New Mexico State University. A shorter version of this piece originally ran in the Albuquerque Journal.

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This piece originally appeared in our Summer 2021 newsletter, “Wild at Heart.” Read the entire newsletter here.

There’s a question taped to the wall in my office that I refer to every morning. It reads: Each of us must experience one of two pains—the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. Which pain will you choose? In running WildEarth Guardians, I aim to choose the disciplined path, prioritizing the most difficult, important, and impactful work every day.

As a nation, we face the same pain point decision in addressing the climate crisis. Either we must choose the heroic path—transforming our economy to decarbonize—or we must face the grim realities of a world destabilized by our worsening climate emergency.

When President Biden issued the Executive Order enacting a moratorium on the sale of oil and gas underneath America’s public lands, he said we need to raise our “climate ambition.”

For more than a decade, WildEarth Guardians’ bold position on keeping fossil fuels in the ground has defined ambitious, supply-side climate policy. Now comes the choice point for leaders at the state and federal level. Will our leaders embrace the hard realities of this moment, or will they ignore the climate emergency?

I used to say the crisis would be faced by generations ahead. Then I said decades ahead. Today, because the climate emergency is here, I say the time is now. The latest evidence is the heat dome in the Pacific Northwest.

With this urgent reality, Guardians is applying relentless pressure in the courts and on elected officials in the American West—including especially the Governors of Colorado and New Mexico—to increase their climate ambition and aggressively oppose the powerful oil & gas industry. We believe a good place to start is a call for an end to the further sale of oil & gas leasing from public lands.

WildEarth Guardians will continue to push industry, the Biden administration, Congress, and state officials to ensure the pain of decarbonization comes now rather than the pain of a worsening climate emergency in the years ahead.

Please do your part for climate action: Urge President Biden to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground on public lands and ask your members of Congress to co-sponsor and pass the Keep It In The Ground Act.

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The United States is facing a crisis in abandoned infrastructure, or “orphanage,” among the oil and gas industry. This crisis has been succinctly described by Megan Milliken Biven & Regan Boychuk as well as extensively reported on by the think tank Carbon Tracker, as in herehere, and here. The problem is that properly decommissioning oil wells is expensive, and simply walking away from them (so far) has not been. Many wells can produce indefinitely in lower and lower amounts, until the cost of operating them exceeds the available profits. At this point the operator will plug (if they are willing and able to plug) or walk away (if they aren’t).

The problem with orphans has many facets. Having operators profit from assets and abandon their liabilities is a massive subsidy to the oil and gas industry at a time we should be investing in renewable energy. These wells can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece to plug, even before reclaiming the land or remediating pollution costs are considered. Additionally, a well is a piece of property — the state can’t just go plug it, it has to go through a formal legal process of being declared abandoned. This imposes administrative burdens, delays, and costs as public agency staff must essentially build a legal case against an operator. It can take years to move a particular operator into “orphan status.” Then there are the constraints around publicly run plugging operations. In Colorado, where I live, our Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s Orphan Well Program has a budget of up to 5 million dollars per year and five full time staff. However the Program has never plugged more than 61 wells in a year. Even if the program could be doubled or even tripled in size, the state currently has approximately 11,000 inactive wells — and is expecting many thousands more in the near future.

We need the oil and gas industry to pay their closure costs up front

Increasing the up-front payment of abandonment costs for all oil and gas sites and facilities, including wells, locations, pits, tanks, waste disposal sites, and processing facilities, is absolutely critical to the goal of preventing future abandonment. Up-front payment of 100% of the expected costs would remove the profit incentive to abandon an oil and gas facility. It would also take advantage of the fact that wells are most productive at the beginning of their useful lives, meaning the greatest amount of cash is flowing then.

The oil and gas industry has proven that it is not a trustworthy one. It has already left a landscape across the United States that is littered with abandoned oil and gas facilities, including the one in Louisiana that killed 14 year old Zalee Gail Day-Smith in February of 2021. Many of these orphans are created by small “wildcat” operators — but not all. One reason we see more small operators abandoning their facilities is that large operators originally spun off those facilities when they became less profitable.

We must confront the two problems facing the United States with respect to our aging oil and gas infrastructure. First is the fact that we already have an enormous number of wells that are legally orphaned, functionally abandoned, or are producing such low quantities that their owners could never afford to pay to plug and abandon them (unless they had other, more productive assets). The second is that we have some very large operators with many thousands of wells, and these wells are often much more expensive to plug and abandon because they are deeper, fracked wells, on larger disturbed area locations, and have much more infrastructure associated with them. If we charged these operators the “up-front” costs of plugging and abandoning these assets it would run into many billions of dollars for a single company. The logistics of collecting and managing such large sums, not to mention the potential for protracted (although likely frivolous) litigation from the industry, are daunting.

Colorado’s proposed new financial assurance rules

Pursuant to a change in the law made in 2019, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission just a few months ago put forward a set of draft rule proposals for amending their rules on bonding, or “financial assurances.” These rules would require the majority of Colorado’s oil and gas operators to pay $78,000 per well, but would allow other operators to bond their wells under a blanket bonding regime for as little as $1,250. The only condition to qualify for these blanket bonds is to have a low number of low producing (under 5 barrels of oil equivalent or “BOE”*/day) wells, or to plug a certain percentage of their own wells per year. The choice of $78,000 as a representative amount is just wrong. It’s a number that will be 3x too high for some wells, and 3x too low for many, many others, and was based on faulty data inputs that have since been corrected. However, it is the blanket bonding option that poses the most serious kinds of financial and safety risks to the state.

We cannot afford to assume that operators with large amounts of production relative to their total number of wells will not abandon their facilities. In Colorado in 2020 an oil producer called Petroshare declared bankruptcy and abandoned its wells to the Orphan Well Program at an estimated cost of about 16 million dollars. At the time, Petroshare was among the top 15% of producers per well with an average of over 26 BOE per well per day. Petroshare might have actually qualified for blanket bonding as a “Tier 2” operator prior to its bankruptcy.** The state would have collected 1.5 million dollars for its blanket bond, and another 1.26 million dollars for its inactive wells. While 2.76 million would have been an improvement over the $325,000 the state actually had from Petroshare, it is still almost six times less than the state is anticipated to spend to deal with Petroshare’s orphans. Even under the lowest “Tier 3” status, where operators would have to pay a bond for each individual well, at $78,000 per well the company would have had only 4.35 million in bonds, while the projected costs of its orphans are 3.5 times larger.

Why is adequate bonding a health and safety issue?

When companies walk away from their oil and gas assets they leave physical problems behind. Leaking methane is one of the biggest. Methane from inactive wells averages 12 grams per hour per well, but there can be “super-emitters” that spew methane at rates thousands of times higher. When wells are abandoned and fall into disrepair it can take a lot longer for this problem to be identified and corrected. This methane is potentially explosive, and these explosions can be and have been deadly. It happened in February, killing a girl who was playing near an abandoned oil tank in Louisiana. It happened here in Colorado when a temporarily abandoned well leaked methane into the basement of a house, which exploded in 2017 killing Joey Irwin and Mark Martinez. Methane is also an incredibly potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 100 times more strongly than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe.

When oil and gas facilities are abandoned it takes time for the responsible state agency to move through its routine. The staff of that agency must identify rule violations, provide warnings, make allegations, and provide notice and a hearing. Each one of these steps can take months to years. In Colorado, once the operator has had its bond claimed and its licensing revoked, the state’s Orphan Well Program will add the facility to its list of projects which can itself be many years long even with the current “low” number of official orphans. In the meantime, the gas just keeps escaping.

Preventing well abandonment

I believe that the two problems of (1) undercapitalized operators with too many wells that need plugging, and (2) big operators with a lower probability of imminent failure, but whose “real” bonding levels would easily reach into the billions, might cancel each other out if an appropriate regulatory framework could be crafted. On the one hand: semi-broke operators with tens of thousands of wells in Colorado alone that the owners cannot afford to plug or pay bonds on, and don’t want to have to pay to keep in safe condition. On the other hand: a fistful of giant companies with enormous future plugging/bonding costs that are also less likely to pose an imminent risk (assuming they are preventing from spinning off their less productive wells to more vulnerable operators the way they have done). Give the rich guys some incentive to plug wells for the poor guys, and make the poor guys pay what they can.

But the only way to provide the incentives to both the rich guys and the poor guys is for the state to set the financial assurance/bond levels at the true cost of plugging and abandonment. If the bonds are lower than the true cost, there will always be a financial incentive to walk away. If we “pull punches” up front we are robbing ourselves of the tools we need to hold the industry accountable for cleaning up its own messes, and we will continue to barrel headlong into the orphan well crisis already in progress.

*Barrel of oil equivalent, or BOE, is equal to one barrel of oil or 6 MCF (thousand cubic feet) of fracked gas.

** A Tier 2 operator would be one where at least 40% of its wells produce more than 5 BOE/day.

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