It shouldn’t be a privilege to breathe clean air, to know that your children won’t be poisoned by methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOC) created by the extraction of oil and gas. I never had to think about that because of arbitrary reasons like the income bracket I was born into. Fossil fuel companies never directly harmed me, but they have harmed many people across the world, especially the Global South. In the US, some of those directly harmed live near abandoned or orphaned oil and gas wells. Others have witnessed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lease the minerals underneath their own property, without their consent.
The health impacts of living near oil and gas wells are not new: affected peoples, particularly in western states, have reported “respiratory problems like asthma and coughing, eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, dizziness, trouble sleeping, and fatigue” for years. For just as long, the industry has insisted that these widespread complaints are isolated incidents, not part of a larger problem, which they obviously are. A 2018 study from the Colorado School of Public Health suggested living near an oil or gas well—specifically, the kind of chemicals those wells release—increases residents’ chance of developing cancer.
According to the Oil and Gas Threat Map, 12.6 million people live within the threat radius of 1,292,669 active oil and gas facilities. This, of course, does not account for an EPA estimated 3.11 million total abandoned wells, an unknown number of which continue to spew methane (which retains 87 times more heat than carbon dioxide over the short term) and toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the surrounding air, soil, and water. The number of people exposed to these toxic chemicals is unfathomable, almost as unfathomable as how little action is being taken to address this quiet catastrophe.
Senator Michael Bennet (D) of Colorado represents many impacted people. He has introduced two important policies perfectly suited for the moment. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Administration’s energy “dominance” agenda have left many unemployed and exposed some of our country’s deep structural inequities. The result is a financially shaky oil and gas industry stranding more assets while running roughshod over landowner rights. Mr. Bennet’s bills put people back to work cleaning up orphaned wells and help deliver fairness, responsiveness, and transparency to landowners impacted by oil and gas drilling.
The Onshore Oil and Gas Orphaned Well Remediation and Reclamation Bonding Reform Act of 2020 would put some of the 118,000 fossil fuel workers who have lost their jobs during the pandemic back to work. This bill would establish two programs for remediation, reclamation and closure of orphaned wells. Crucially, it returns the majority of the available money directly to the States and Tribes with the greatest need.
Senator Bennet’s complementary bill, the Public Engagement Opportunity on Public Lands Exploration (PEOPLE) Act of 2020, gives more rights to people living on top of public minerals the BLM leases to oil and gas companies. It requires these companies to behave as good neighbors. No longer may speculators bid anonymously. BLM will perform the environmental reviews before auction and surface owners will have more information and opportunities to protest than under current law.
I had no idea what oil and gas wells were, much less the horrible toxics they released into the atmosphere, until a few years ago. It scares and angers me in equal measure. And I acknowledge those who have dealt with this for years; who watch their children get sick; who develop cancer from these facilities; who receive no financial assistance from the companies profiting from them. These people feel a true connection with their land and have seen it turn into something that slowly poisons them.
These bills bring meaning to the experiences of people harmed—physically, financially, emotionally—by our Government leasing public minerals and the companies extracting them. They can’t undo the harm, but these ideas are the right direction for people who have been overlooked for far too long.