When the oil and gas industry trashes public land, taxpayers often clean up the mess

Americans own a lot of land. I am not talking about your own backyard, but about federal land that belongs to all Americans. This land includes national parks, national forests, and national wildlife refuges. It also includes land managed by an agency called the Bureau of Land Management - an agency that many Americans have never heard of. Known as the BLM, this agency alone manages 253 million acres of public land on behalf of all of us.

These lands are used for multiple purposes -- recreation and wildlife habitat, for example. More than 45 million acres of public land are leased to oil and gas companies. They are allowed to drill on these public lands and give some money back to the taxpayers for the right to make a profit off of public resources. 

In addition to managing these lands, the BLM manages oil and gas resources that lie beneath private land. Again, these resources belong to the American people. There are 700 million acres of oil and gas managed by the BLM. Currently, 44.5 million acres are leased with 472,000 acres of surface disturbance.

Here's why I've provided this background: The BLM requires oil and gas operators to restore the land they disturb during drilling to its original state once a well has ceased production. Companies have to post a bond when they lease oil or gas to help pay for the restoration. A recent investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that not all operators perform the reclamation and, if the bond is not sufficient to pay for the reclamation, taxpayers end up footing the bill. The GAO found that the minimum required bond amounts are not based on the expected reclamation costs for a site and these minimum bond amounts were last set in the 1960s! In contrast, federal bonding requirements for the extraction of other resources, such as coal, gold, silver, and copper, require operators to post bonds that cover the full estimated cost of reclamation.

The GAO found that the BLM spent $3.8 million to reclaim 295 orphaned wells in ten states over the last ten years, and has identified more than 200 other wells that are in need of reclamation. This does not reflect the wells that are abandoned and potentially harming the environment but have not yet been identified for clean-up.

The GAO also reports that whether or not an "orphaned" well is restored is completely discretionary for BLM. According to our colleagues at the Powder River Basin Resource Council, in one Wyoming region more than 85% of natural gas drilling projects were out of compliance with reclamation requirements. One Wyoming ranch has 15 oil wells abandoned in 1972 that have still not been reclaimed.

This is just one more example of the oil and gas industry getting special treatment from friends in high places. The oil and gas industry should be held to the same standards as other industries. It is time to require sufficient bonds and require appropriate restoration of these sites. After all, they belong to each and every one of us.