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The Climate 202

Abandoned wells are a huge climate problem

The Climate 202

TGIF! Today we're wondering why pumpkin spice hummus is a thing. But first:

The United States has more abandoned wells than we thought

The number of abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States is much higher than previously thought, according to an exclusive analysis shared with The Climate 202.

The analysis, which was done by the Environmental Defense Fund and McGill University, found that there are 81,283 documented orphan wells across the country that were drilled and then improperly abandoned by oil and gas companies. That's nearly 1.5 times the previous estimate of roughly 56,000 wells from the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a quasi-governmental organization.

Each orphan well is a major climate problem: It spews methane, a potent greenhouse gas. While methane breaks down in the atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide, it's about 86 times more powerful at warming the planet in the short term.

  • The analysis also found that about 9 million Americans live within one mile of an orphan well, including 4.3 million people of color and 550,000 children younger than 5 who are especially vulnerable to health problems tied to air pollution.
  • The findings come with a map showing the locations of orphan wells in all 50 states, including "hot spots" in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.

"I think what you get out of this map is a sense of how big this problem is," Adam Peltz, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund who worked on the analysis, told The Climate 202. "It's a coast-to-coast problem. It's a rural and urban problem."

On the Hill

Legislation to address the problem was included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill being debated in Congress.

The "Revive Economic Growth and Reclaim Orphaned Wells (REGROW) Act" from Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) would "require the Secretary of the Interior to establish a program to plug, remediate and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells and surrounding land."

  • The measure would also provide funding for state regulators and Native American tribes, which are often saddled with the cost of cleaning up orphan wells after the oil companies that drilled the wells go bankrupt.
  • "The REGROW Act is a critical step forward in cleaning up orphaned oil and gas wells, which can leak methane, contaminate groundwater and create community safety risks," Luján said in a statement to The Climate 202. “New Mexico and so many states across the country need skilled energy workers back to work and focused on the primary goal of plugging every documented orphaned well in the country.”
  • Sen. Cramer said in a statement to The Climate 202 that the legislation is a "pro-jobs and pro-natural resources piece of legislation that would put unemployed oilfield workers back on the job where they can use their skillsets to prevent environmental hazards and make the land in their communities productive again."

Still, the bipartisan infrastructure bill is being held up by progressives, who say there shouldn't be a vote on the infrastructure measure until the passage of Democrats' sweeping social spending package, which contains even more aggressive provisions to address climate change.

'Scratching the surface'

Mary Kang, an assistant professor of civil engineering at McGill University and another author of the analysis, emphasized that she and her co-authors only looked at documented orphan wells, meaning those that state oil and gas regulators have identified. 

The number of undocumented orphan wells could be as high as 3.4 million, according to recent estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We can plug all these documented wells, but there are still going to be undocumented wells that are causing problems," Kang told The Climate 202. "So we might just be scratching the surface."

On the Hill

Backers of climate bank fear cuts

When climate advocates talk about Democrats' budget reconciliation package, they often focus on the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would reward utilities that transition to cleaner energy.

But there's another major climate program that has flown under the radar: a national climate bank, also known as a national green bank or a clean energy accelerator.

Essentially, a national climate bank would leverage public and private investments to provide financing for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support clean energy technologies. The proposal was first included in the “CLEAN Future Act” from Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as the “National Climate Bank Act” from Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). 

Under the House and Senate versions of the reconciliation package, the national climate bank would leverage $27.5 billion in public funds. But as the overall scope of the reconciliation package shrinks to appease moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), supporters of the national climate bank fear it might get trimmed.

“I do worry about it getting scaled back because the more you scale back, obviously the less greenhouse gas reductions you achieve,” Van Hollen told The Climate 202 on Thursday. 

“Our view is if you look at the numbers, it's pretty linear,” he said. “If you cut it by 10 percent, that means you're going to get 10 percent less reductions in greenhouse gas emissions."

Countdown to COP26

Biden is sending 13 Cabinet members and senior officials to the U.N. climate summit

The delegation, which includes his top domestic and international climate advisers Gina McCarthy and John Kerry, is a “show of strength” at the pivotal meeting, CNN’s Ella Nilsen reports. Biden also will attend the conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

The other attendees include Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Interior Secretary Deb Haaland; Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen; U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Rick Spinrad; White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander; and National Economic Council director Brian Deese.

The challenge for the Biden administration is whether the delegation will show up empty-handed. Biden’s climate goals hinge on the sweeping reconciliation bill that is currently tied up in congressional negotiations and which will almost certainly see major cuts. Also unlikely to clear Congress before the start of the summit is the $2.5 billion pledged to help developing countries combat climate change, Bloomberg’s Jennifer A Dlouhy and Justin Sink report

Kerry warns that climate talks could fall short of what is needed

The U.S. climate envoy has been crisscrossing the globe for the past year trying to persuade countries to commit to sharp reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions, but he warns it might not be enough. In an interview with the Associated Press, Kerry said that some of the world’s biggest polluters aren’t moving fast enough.

“By the time Glasgow’s over, we’re going to know who is doing their fair share, and who isn’t,” Kerry said.

The U.N. summit was billed early on as the last chance for countries to avert climate catastrophe, but recently leaders have emphasized that some of the progress on cutting global emissions may have to take place after the summit.

“Kerry rejected a suggestion he was seeking to lower expectations for the summit,” the AP’s Ellen Knickmeyer writes.

Kerry also weighed in on the prospect that the U.S. might be among the countries that fall short if Congress fails to pass robust climate legislation. “It would be like President Trump pulling out of the Paris agreement, again,” he said.

Biden will meet with Pope Francis to discuss climate change

Biden will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Oct. 29 during the president’s trip to Rome for the Group of 20 summit. Biden, who is Catholic, will be joined by first lady Jill Biden in the meeting, The Post’s Amy B Wang and Chico Harlan report.

Pressure points

Police and climate activists clash during protests outside of the Interior Department

A climate protest at the Interior Department resulted in the arrest of activists and reports of injuries from both protesters and security personnel, The Post's Ellie Silverman reports. Thursday marked the fourth day of the People vs. Fossil Fuels protests in Washington, D.C.

Dozens of activists held a sit-in inside the Stewart Lee Udall Main Interior Building, while protesters outside attempted at times to push past a police line. Fifty-five people were arrested, according to People vs. Fossil Fuels.

Security personnel sustained “multiple injuries" and one officer was taken to the hospital, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department said in a statement. 

White House releases report on climate-related financial risk

The White House on Friday released a report on the risks that climate change poses to the U.S. financial system. The document details steps the Biden administration has taken to address climate-related financial risks, including a Labor Department proposed rule that would make it easier for retirement plans to add investment options based on environmental, social and governance factors. 

The Financial Stability Oversight Council is also expected to unveil a report on climate-related financial risks on Monday, according to a person familiar with the matter. While the report isn’t due until mid-November, the Biden administration may see its early release as a way to bolster its climate credentials ahead of the U.N. climate summit in Scotland next month, the person said.


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