Abandoned oil and gas wells pose some of the biggest environmental risks in the United States: here are the Latinos pushing for cleanup


Over 100 years of oil drilling in the United States have left their mark, as millions of abandoned oil wells scattered across the country have created one of the country’s greatest environmental hazards on land, and it affects communities the most. of BIPOC.

From California to Texas, there are 3 million of these abandoned facilities, including more than 2 million that are “disconnected,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

When unplugged and unmoderated, these wells are essentially out of balance, becoming corridors for oil, gas, and salt water to merge into groundwater and healthy soil. It thus becomes a danger to wildlife, livestock and humans nearby above the ground.

In recent years, there has also been a new discovery: an unknown number of these non-fleshy oil and gas wells are spouting millions of metric tons of methane each year, heightening calls to undertake the simple solution of plugging wells for reduce emissions.

If the fix is ​​so simple, then why have those 2 million disconnected wells been left to spew toxic emissions for years since they were abandoned?

This is because they are often located in historically underfunded communities and mostly inhabited by Latinx and Indigenous peoples.

It is not a partisan issue. On the contrary, racist environmental practices are so ingrained in our system that it has become normal to see oil fields that are the hallmark of a walk through Texas, or through parts of the Central Valley of California. . It becomes more difficult to separate their location with their implications on surrounding communities.

The impacts are strongly observed in states with the highest concentrations of Latinx and indigenous populations. New Mexico, which has the highest percentage of Latinos of any other state, has more than 700 abandoned wells. In the fields of Wyoming, hundreds of abandoned wells affect native lands near or in place.

According to a 2016 joint study by LULAC, the Clean Air Task Force, and the National Hispanic Medical Association, Latinx communities are at great risk of impact from air pollution from the oil and gas industry.

The report found that 1.81 million Latinos live within half a mile of existing oil and gas facilities and that number will only increase over the years.

“As a result, many Latin American communities face a high risk of cancer due to emissions of toxic substances into the air,” the report reads.

It’s environmental racism at stake.

But this is happening in a dying industry, which makes the situation even more precarious.

As the oil and gas industry continues to falter – exacerbated by the pandemic – alongside the rise of renewables, more than 100 companies have gone bankrupt in 2020. President Joe Biden also issued a recent order to stop drilling on federal lands, which should take that number even higher.

But because of existing regulations and bonding requirements – the funds companies pay up front as insurance – there is little liability for owners of abandoned wells. For businesses that go bankrupt, they are no longer required to pay for cleaning up the mess they created.

This is one of the many reasons why a bipartisan group of lawmakers are introducing legislation for clean-up measures.

New Mexico Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez and Senator Ben Ray Luján are leading congressional efforts to plug so-called “orphan” wells, those approximately 56,000 oil and gas wells that were abandoned with no party responsible for the cleanup.

The Orphan Well Cleanup and Use Act would set aside $ 8 billion in federal funds to clean up more than 50,000 of these wells on federal, state, private and tribal lands.

In a statement to AL DÍALeger Fernandez said it was a reinvestment in those communities she described as “beautiful”.

“We have the opportunity to do environmental justice for communities of color and to reorient federal policy to ensure polluters pay the cleanup costs,” Léger Fernandez said.

His bill would also increase the bond that companies must pay to drill wells and charge operators an annual fee for “inactive” wells on public lands to discourage companies from continuing to abandon wells.

In the Senate, Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Kevin Cramer are pushing their own bill, the Revive Economic Growth and Reclaim Orphaned Wells Act, which would provide $ 4.275 billion for the cleaning of orphan wells on public and private lands, $ 400 million for orphans cleaning wells on public and tribal lands and $ 32 million for research and development.

“People of color are disproportionately affected by pollution and climate change. They are more likely to breathe polluted air and more likely to encounter obstacles in accessing drinking water, ”Luján said in a statement to AL DÍA.

“Cleaning up orphaned oil and gas wells is a common sense solution to protecting our communities from harmful pollution while creating opportunities for America to recover and rebuild after the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said he declared.

President Biden’s $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure plan calls on Congress to pass $ 8 billion to plug wells and $ 8 billion to reclaim coal and uranium mines, creating jobs in the renewable energies.

But it’s unclear how much would be set aside for each state, which is part of why members of Congress are acting on their own.

Leaks from these abandoned wells have long been recognized as an environmental problem, but only recently have they been recognized all the way to the Oval Office.

This is what happens when BIPOC legislators from these most at-risk communities are elected. From Home Office Deb Haaland becoming the first Indigenous person in a presidential cabinet to Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez becoming the first woman and Latina to represent her district in New Mexico.

They put these questions on the table.

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