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An orphaned oil well sits outside of Bakersfield, Calif. Photo: David Walter Banks for The Washington Post via Getty Image

Tens of thousands of abandoned oil wells are polluting Latino and Native American communities across the country, and a freshman Latina congresswoman wants the U.S. government to do something about it.

Why it matters: The orphaned wells are leaking methane, potentially contaminating groundwater in some of the nation's poorest communities, and no one is responsible for clean up.

  • Many abandoned oil wells are located in New Mexico, a state with the largest percentage of Latinos in the U.S. and one of the biggest percentages of Native Americans.

The details: U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) recently introduced a bill that would set aside $8 billion in federal funds to clean up more than 50,000 forgotten wells on federal, state, private and tribal lands.

  • Leger Fernández told Axios that proposal would create needed jobs in poor, isolated areas while removing toxic wells that contaminate surrounding soil and groundwater.
  • "Oil and gas companies have abandoned hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells. In the process, they’ve abandoned Latino, tribal, and other communities of color that are left to suffer the consequences," Leger Fernández said.

Federal agencies and states responsible for plugging these wells have long complained they have limited funding for cleanup.

  • The Orphaned Well Cleanup and Jobs Act, sponsored by Leger Fernández and currently in committee, would allow states to apply for grants to remove pipelines and reclaim well pads.
  • Tribal governments could locate companies responsible for the abandoned wells and charge the cleanup costs to them.
  • The bill also requires oil and gas companies taking hydrocarbons out of the ground to set aside funds for clean-up later to prevent abandoned wells.
  • California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and West Texas also have abandoned or idle wells near communities of color.

What they're saying: “The costs of cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells should be shouldered by industry, not American taxpayers,” said Josh Axelrod, a senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

  • "This bill takes important steps to ensure that in the future, industry is on the hook for the harms they leave behind."
  • Don Schreiber, a northern New Mexico rancher near the Navajo Nation, told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources last month that many well operators go bankrupt, leaving the taxpayers on the hook for cleanup.

A similar proposal in the U.S. Senate sponsored by U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) has drawn support from the American Petroleum Institute, a national trade association that represents the oil and natural gas industry.

  • "Our industry complies with all existing state and federal requirements for abandoned wells and reclaiming wells sites, and we will continue to support new efforts,” API Senior Vice President of Policy, Economics and Regulatory Affairs Frank Macchiarola said.

Don't forget: Oil and gas jobs are some of the highest paying employment in isolated, poor regions.

Editor’s note: This post was updated to add a comment from the American Petroleum Institute.

Go deeper

Debt investors retreat from funding dirty energy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Banks are coming under fire from all sides for their role in funding fossil fuel companies, even though most have pledged to pull back over the coming decades.

What's happening: Despite pressure from activists, shareholders and Democratic politicians to finally divest from carbon-spewing businesses as the planet warms, the biggest American banks are still energetically backing dirty energy.

Biden says presidency "will be determined" by outcome of spending plans

President Biden walks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after addressing the House Democratic Caucus on Thursday. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden told the House Democratic caucus Thursday "my presidency will be determined" by the votes he wants in the next week on his $1.75 trillion social safety net expansion and $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

Driving the news: Biden made the comment, according to a source in the room, as he tried to rally support for the $1.75 trillion package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acted immediately, calling for a vote on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill later in the day.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
9 mins ago - Energy & Environment

China declines to speed emissions cuts in new UN pledge

A view of the skyscrapers in the haze in Shanghai, China, in December 2020. Photo: Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Chinese leaders are sticking with a prior target to bring the country's carbon emissions to a peak before 2030, according to documents filed with the United Nations Thursday under the Paris climate agreement.

Why it matters: The new documents come just days ahead of the UN climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow. China is by far the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, and its emissions path is key to whether the temperature-limiting goals of the Paris agreement can remain within reach.

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