Clean Energy Insights

Tackling methane leaks is a climate win — but lets polluters off the hook

5 minute read

As featured in the Hill


This week, the Biden administration took one of its more formidable actions for the climate yet. It mobilized $1.15 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure package, signed into law in November, to start capping abandoned oil and gas wells. This move will tackle the 130,000 wells around the country that leak methane — a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful at warming the planet than carbon dioxide.

This is an important win for the climate, and a moral victory for advocates who have been demanding the leaking wells be plugged for years. It’s especially timely, given that we’re all reeling from having watched the slow death of the key climate provision of the Build Back Better (BBB) Act, the Clean Electricity Performance Program, followed by the entire BBB coming to a screeching halt with no sense of if or when the hard-fought climate policies in it will see the light of day. We kind of needed this.

(It’s not the only bright spot to counter the slew of missed legislative opportunities: A federal court ruled last week that the 80 million acres the Biden administration had started to auction off for oil and gas drilling needs to go through a climate assessment. Phew.)

The abandoned or “orphaned” wells, as they’re called, leaking all this methane are climate low-hanging fruit. I mean, it’s not like anyone is arguing to leave them open to continue leaking methane, poisoning our communities and heating up our planet. So, it’s not surprising that Biden would start here. 

The money will be doled out to states that had previously reported having leaking wells, allowing state agencies to hire people to plug the wells, creating many new jobs. Win for the environment, win for the communities and a win for the economy. In addition to this first step, the new infrastructure law also includes a much larger plan to address methane leaking, reclaiming abandoned mines and monitoring greenhouse gas emissions, which is promising.

At first glance, this is a home run out of Washington.

At closer look though, there’s an important question here that demands some attention.

Oil and gas companies dug these wells and left these holes in the ground leaking contaminants, after getting what they came for. Yes, some of the companies who initially dug the wells have gone out of business, but what about the ones who are still operating, creating more methane leaking wells in more communities — just business as usual? Does taxpayers footing the bill to clean up their mess send a message that they should change their practices?

Bethany Williams, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute said, “We welcome the administration’s efforts to address orphaned wells.” I bet the industry does! The subtext being reads more like, “Thanks for picking up the tab, Joe.”

Certainly, from a climate perspective, we needed to get this done, so I’m not going to split hairs here. The administration is making good on its promise to deal with this — and that’s important.

But the infrastructure bill also includes $1 billion for “modernizing natural gas pipelines.” Really? Are we still going to invest in the dirty energy infrastructure of the past? 

When will we stop investing in an “all of the above” energy strategy and start making the clean renewable energy investments we need and were promised? We need to stop new wells from being drilled, stop new homes and power plants from being designed to burn natural gas,  get on with the process of decarbonizing our economy, as well as electrifying everything as fast as possible.

In addition to the climate risk, it’s also for our health. A recent study found that even when our stoves are not on, they leak methane into our homes. Cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and New York have started banning natural gas hookups in new home and building constructions. These are the types of policies we need at the federal level to address the climate emergency.

As climate activist and author Bill McKibben puts it, “If one wanted a basic rule of thumb for dealing with the climate crisis, it would be: stop burning things.”

We now have (and have for some time) all the technology we need to power everything with clean renewable energy — from shipping, to heavy industry, to our stovetop cooking. Please, let’s stop letting the fossil fuel industry write our policies as it profits on pollution — and let’s stop letting them off the hook by cleaning up their messes for them.

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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