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Millions of Americans live near abandoned, toxic oil and gas wells. What does the government plan to do about it?

Stephen Foulger, of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, inspects an oil pump site.
Stephen Foulger, an environmental scientist with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, uses a Flir gas detection camera during an inspection of an oil pump site near Roosevelt on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
 Scott G Winterton, Deseret News Purchase Photo

Millions of Americans live near an abandoned oil or gas well — 9 million live within just one mile.

Long forgotten by energy companies who packed up once they’re no longer viable or went bankrupt, “orphaned wells” spew toxic methane gas and pose a serious public health risk.

A new program spearheaded by the Bureau of Land Management and bolstered by the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package is aimed at plugging those forgotten wells, which are found in over half of the nation’s states.

The package sets aside almost $5 billion for plugging wells, tracking methane emissions and land remediation. As of Thursday 26 states, including Utah, have issued a notice of intent to apply for a formula grant, one of three grants states can request under the program.

The money will be allocated based on how many wells a state has. An additional grant of up to $25 million and a performance grant that will require states to apply annually are also available.

The program is being touted as an economic boost, and stakeholders say workers will be in demand to plug the wells, remediate the land and remove old infrastructure.

What are orphaned wells and how many are in the U.S.?

The numbers are disputed, and some groups say there are close to 215,000 orphaned wells across the country, while the latest estimate from the U.S. Department of the Interior is 130,000 — twice as many as the department estimated in 2019.

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