Oil, gas and mining have left their mark all over Colorado. Federal infrastructure bill could help clean up some of it

“When they removed the pump jack, they discovered historic leaks of produced water and oil in the soil and groundwater of this field,” said Greg Dean, liaison for oil and gas. Adams County Gas, standing on the site of the old well. “So they always do a sampling to see what the extent of that impact is. But it’s the best example of what an orphan site can do in Adams County.

Dean is happy with the job the state is doing to clean up orphan wells, but it can get expensive. Correctly hooking up each site costs an average of $ 85,000. That’s about $ 6.5 million for the 77 orphaned wells in Adams County alone.

“I am angry and frustrated,” Adams County Commissioner Emma Pinter said of the situation. “I feel like the analogy that comes to mind all the time is that you go out to lunch with a few friends and you know you’re going to have to foot the bill someday. (But) as you look around, two or three of your friends have slipped from behind. And the rest of you foot the bill.

Caitlyn Kim / CPR News
A Green Number 2 tank awaits removal in a weed field in Adams County.

Right now, the state is in control. And Pinter is also worried about futures counties.

But another guest may soon be joining the table. The bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress could pass later this month contains more than $ 4.5 billion for the plugging and remediation of orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells across the country. But that may not yet be sufficient for the scale of the problem.

The actual cost “could be over $ 50-80 million, just in Colorado. And that is if there are no additional wells added to the list of orphaned wells, ”Dean said.

Colorado has more than 250 orphan wells that need to be plugged, and more than double the number of orphan well sites that need to be remediated.

Caitlyn Kim / CPR News
Scott McCurry (left) and Jason Willis talk about work being done to clear mine waste and move a stream out of it.

There is also money for cleaning up abandoned mines in the infrastructure bill

The infrastructure bill does not just deal with the oil and gas legacy. It is also allocating $ 11 billion for the Interior Ministry’s abandoned mining land reclamation program and $ 3 billion for the reclamation of abandoned hard rock mines.

This is funding that could come in handy for Jason Willis, director of abandoned Colorado mining lands for Trout Unlimited, a non-profit organization working to preserve watersheds.

His current project is located on the mountainside beyond the former mining town of Bonanza, just north of the San Luis Valley, an area he has worked in for years. Along the dirt road leading to the city, interpretive panels show the clean-up of mining waste (tailings) and the remediation work that has already been carried out.

One indicates a hill that is not really a hill, but a “contaminated tailings burrito wrap” brought from the watershed.

As you pass Bonanza the dirt road becomes stony and the ride becomes very bumpy. Willis is here to get an update from his contractor on this latest project, Scott McCurry, regarding the removal of a mine waste stream. It is not always possible, cost effective or necessary (depending on the type of contamination) to move the tailings. They plan to neutralize the waste with limestone, put some fresh vegetation cover, relocate the stream and revegetate the landscape.

Caitlyn Kim / CPR News
Old mining sites like this can be found all over Colorado. Some mining concessions date back to the 19th century.

“This is the fourth phase of the cleanup, and I am pulling funds from five to six different sources,” Willis explained.

This mishmash of support includes a grant from the Colorado Healthy Rivers Fund, private funding from businesses, including a mining company, and money from the US Forest Service. The total price for this project is $ 120,000.

“If we had a bigger reserve of money to do this job, we would be able to do larger scale cleanings and a higher volume of cleanings. So that would make things a little easier in that regard. “

Trout Unlimited works in partnership with state and federal agencies on three to seven cleanup projects like this per year. And like orphan wells, “many of these sites are abandoned and have no PRP or ‘potentially responsible party’ to foot the cleanup bill. So it’s up to the taxpayers or the federal government, or, you know, organizations like ours that go out and fundraise to do these cleanups.

Jeff Graves, director of the state’s idle mine remediation program, said the state could get more than $ 10 million a year for the next 15 years to deal with coal mine work if the bill on infrastructure is adopted. It’s less certain how much the state could get for hard rock mine cleanup – but either way, Graves is excited about the prospect of really tackling Colorado’s neglected mining heritage. coal and hard rock.

“I think he has a lot of potential to solve a lot of these issues that we really only got to nibble on at the edges,” he said.

Caitlyn Kim / CPR News
Jason Willis will be checking water levels at a site Trout Unlimited and its partners worked on a few years ago. Below this earth are two tubes that descend into a mine tunnel whose entrance collapsed years ago.

Funding is a start, but more reforms are needed too

Almost everyone agrees that Congress investing money in cleaning up these historic problems is a good thing. But funding – if it becomes law – will not be a panacea, only a first step. Those involved in the reclamation and restoration say Congress must act in other ways to facilitate this type of cleanup work.

For oil and gas, bond reform is a major concern.

“In the past, a well only required a deposit of $ 5,000,” Dean explained. “So (a company) would have to post a $ 5,000 bond to the state to drill these wells. (But) we know the cost of plugging an abandoned well is $ 85,000.

Forfeit the deposit or pay to plug. You can do the math.

Dean also doesn’t want the orphan well program to become an incentive for companies to hand unwanted assets to the state.

Adams County Orphan Well signCaitlyn Kim / CPR News
It’s up to the state to pay to plug and clean up orphan wells like this one. Congress may soon approve money to help, but it is unlikely to cover the full extent of the problem.

He is not alone. Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson, deputy director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, has a spreadsheet of low-producing wells in the state.

On average, some companies’ well portfolios produce less than three barrels per day. He fears that many of them will end up becoming orphan wells.

“These operators need to be responsible for cleaning up their mess. Otherwise, taxpayers are held accountable, whether through stimulus dollars like the infrastructure bill or through the general (state) fund, ”he said. “Someone’s going to have to pay to clean it up and it should be the oil and gas industry.”

Adams Pinter County Commissioner understands oil and gas is big business in her area, but still wants to make sure operators act responsibly.

“We know that there are a lot of businesses that employ a lot of our residents and we want to make sure that, as we have this economic vitality, we also take care of the public health and the safety of our residents”, a- she declared. . “These things have to go hand in hand.”

Caitlyn Kim / CPR News
Maya MacHamer mentions some of the mine clean-up and remediation work her group did near the creek. In her hand is a photo of what she looked like before.

Are the Laws of the Good Samaritan an option?

When it comes to mine cleaning, you can’t talk for long before the Good Samaritan laws are passed.

“Because it’s always the chicken before the egg scenario, we need more funding, we also need legislative protections to clean up abandoned mines,” he said.

Good Samaritan laws could protect groups wishing to undertake cleanups from liability risks.

“I think there are a lot of small nonprofit groups and watersheds that might be willing to do more of this work, if there was more solid and Good Samaritan coverage and funding to go with it. “said Maya MacHamer, director of the Boulder Watershed Collective.

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