By DON LUMBARDY
Making a living as a rancher on the Western Slope isn’t easy. Working the land in an arid environment, keeping livestock, and negotiating in turbulent market conditions is hard work at the best of times. Yet over the past 50 years that I’ve raised cattle and grown crops in Mesa County, I have witnessed the days growing hotter and drier with each passing year.
For many like myself who sought to build a career feeding our community from the land that I call home, drought is threatening to wither our way of life. Protecting what little water we have and taking action to slow the change in climate is vital to sustaining agriculture in Western Colorado, which is why we must urge state and federal decision makers to adopt protective rules that require oil and gas operators to set aside enough money to clean up their oil and gas wells after they are finished with production.
When a well that is drilled to extract oil or gas has no operator responsible for it (due to bankruptcy, etc.), it is referred to as an “orphaned well.” Orphaned wells result in many problems for public health and the environment, including venting harmful chemicals into the air, polluting groundwater with toxic sludge, creating dangerous conditions for wildlife, and releasing plumes of methane.
Large operators will frequently drill wells, extract most of the resource, and then sell them off to smaller operators towards the end of the well’s productive life. After the small operator pumps the last dredges, they often declare bankruptcy, and leave the orphaned wells for the government (that is, taxpayers) to clean up.
Unfortunately, we already have a number of these orphaned wells here in Mesa County’s own backyard. For example, Fram Operating LLC has left a number of wells orphaned in the Grand Junction watershed. Fram only posted some $310,000 in bonds to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, despite the total bill for cleanup being about $5 million. These wells are a direct threat to the community’s water supply.
In my own experience, Fram has tried to strong-arm landowners such as myself into allowing them to drill on their property without regard to the potential impacts that their extraction might have on our water supply. Despite my protests and explanation that any drilling could divert away water that I needed to grow crops and raise cattle, their landman told me that my concerns didn’t matter, and that they would drill anyway. Fortunately, this did not come to pass, but there is no doubt in my mind that if they hadn’t filed for bankruptcy, they would have tried.
My story is just one example of what is happening across our state, and the real threat that orphaned oil and gas wells pose to us all. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, hunting, fishing, and animal watching contribute about $800 million to the economy of western Colorado, and $5.7 billion statewide. Colorado’s agricultural sector creates an additional $47 billion. Protecting these industries from disruptive changes in weather patterns, habitat loss, and soil degradation that orphaned wells contribute to is vital to protecting over 124,000 jobs throughout our state.
But it’s not just jobs on the line; it’s also our tax dollars. Of the approximately 52,000 producing wells in Colorado, about half produce less than 5 barrels of oil or equivalent in natural gas per day. Should the operators walk away from their obligations to plug and reclaim them, it will be Colorado taxpayers left to foot the bill for the billions of dollars in cleanup costs they represent.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take right now to prevent the orphaned well crisis we are facing from festering any longer. Presently, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is seeking to craft new financial assurance rules. They need to hear from the public that we expect operators to post a bond for the full cost of plugging and reclamation for each well up front before they are allowed to drill. At the federal level, we must encourage Sens. Hickenlooper and Bennet to push for the latter’s Oil and Gas Bonding Reform and Orphaned Well Remediation Act, which would provide billions of dollars to clean up orphaned wells and modernize bonding rates, to be passed by Congress as soon as possible.
For those of us on the Western Slope working in agriculture, science has produced technological advances that have made our work easier and level of crop production possible. Now, science is telling us that we have to protect our environment, health, and water from orphaned oil and gas wells. By working together, we can confront this threat to our health, economy, and tax dollars, and protect this vibrant, beautiful state for Coloradans now and in the future.
Don Lumbardy is a fourth-generation rancher born in Mesa County, just 20 miles west of the ranch he lives on today. Don has been ranching in western Colorado for nearly 50 years, and works to help the public understand the importance of food, water, and protecting the environment that sustains them.