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When energy booms go bust, the public is often left responsible for the cleanup. Most states and the federal government make companies put up at least some money to pay for any mess they might leave behind, but it's usually not enough. Wyoming Public Radio's Stephanie Joyce reports.
STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: Driving around the Powder River Basin in Northeast Wyoming with Jeff Campbell and Jeff Gillum is like playing an extended game of Where's Waldo?
JEFF CAMPBELL: Hey. Can you see the well yet?
JOYCE: Campbell is pointing toward a yard full of heavy equipment on the outskirts of Gillette.
No, I definitely cannot see the - oh, yeah, I can see the well right there.
JOYCE: We're on a tour of wells where the company responsible up and walked away. There are almost 4,000 of them in the state, and Gillum and Campbell, who work for the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, are in charge of making sure they get cleaned up and plugged. But first, Gillum says, they have to find them.
JEFF GILLUM: Finding Waldo's easier.
JOYCE: That's because Gillette, like many other U.S. cities from Los Angeles to Denver, grew up around the wells. They're in people's front yards, at the end of the driving range at the golf course. We pull into a site where workers are beginning the plugging process.
GILLUM: OK. This is a bentonite trailer, OK?
JOYCE: Bentonite is a kind of super-absorbent clay that gets poured down the well to seal it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Listen for the bentonite to hit the water at the bottom, and then we'll dump more.
JOYCE: Once the bottom of the well is filled with bentonite, a cement crew comes in, then a pipe-cutting crew. Campbell says it takes 20 guys total and many hours from start to finish.
CAMPBELL: It's a lot more work than a lot of people realize.
JOYCE: And it takes a lot of money. Coal-bed methane wells in Wyoming are relatively shallow, so they generally cost under $10,000 apiece to plug. But there are so many orphaned wells, it could cost up to $30 million over the next decade to clean them all up. That's no small expense, but there's a potentially bigger one on the horizon - all the deep oil and gas wells that have been drilled recently. Jill Morrison is an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
JILL MORRISON: You know, they're that much deeper. The pad sizes are much bigger. So the costs to properly plug and reclaim these deep oil wells are going to be much, much more expensive.
JOYCE: Tens of thousands of dollars per well. Companies put up bonds to cover their cleanup costs in the event they go bankrupt, but the bonds they pay up front are almost never enough. Right now in Wyoming, companies only have the pay $75,000 for all of their wells on private land. Mark Watson is Wyoming's oil and gas supervisor. He recently proposed new rules that double that to $150,000.
MARK WATSON: Some companies - it would be more than enough, and some companies - it wouldn't be enough to plug all their wells.
JOYCE: Companies are supposed to pay a second bond when the wells stop producing, but historically, that hasn't always happened. During the coal-bed methane boom, large companies sold their wells and the responsibility for plugging them to smaller companies that didn't post the second bond before going under. Watson says the new rule will help avoid a repeat of that situation.
WATSON: One of the things we probably need to do a better job at is identifying companies that aren't solvent and identify them sooner than we did when the coal-bed play ended.
JOYCE: But that's not easy. In the recent oil price crash, even some relatively big companies have gone bankrupt. There is a way to ensure there's enough money for cleanup. Make companies pay for it upfront. But that's not on the table in Wyoming or anywhere else in the country. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce in Laramie.
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