Modernized oil, gas rules protect taxpayers and public health

September 17, 2023 4:32 am

A field with oil wells in Musselshell County, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

I live and ranch in Bainville within the Bakken oilfield. I respect the hard work of the drillers, roughnecks, and all who execute the difficult and specialized labor in the oil and gas industry. These people work extremely hard, often in dangerous situations, to provide for their families.

My feelings about some of the oil company owners are more varied.

These executives and their investors have enjoyed immense profits from extracting federally-owned minerals and minerals found below federally-owned land. Far too often, however, once that wealth is extracted, these executives skip town leaving behind orphaned and abandoned oil wells that cause serious burdens for local communities and taxpayers.

That’s why I’m glad to see that for the first time in more than 60 years, responsible new federal rules have been proposed for the oil and gas industry that can help protect our health, environment, and our tax dollars. 

The Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Land Management have drafted a new rule proposal that would increase bonding money oil companies must set aside for cleanup before drilling on public and tribal lands. These bonds assure that funds are in place to safely plug wells and reclaim the land once drilling is complete. If an oil company properly cleans up after drilling, its bonds are released. If it acts irresponsibly, leaving behind neglected, leaking oil wells and dilapidated industrial materials, these bonds are used to pay for cleanup. 

Current bonding levels are radically out of step with the costs of reclaiming modern wells that can be miles deep. Today’s amounts are so low that oil and gas companies lack appropriate incentives to clean up after drilling. Executives often decide it’s cheaper to forfeit their bonds than it is to fulfill their responsibility to keep our communities safe by properly remediating drilling sites. As a result, Montana alone has hundreds of orphaned and abandoned wells scattered across our oilfields that leak methane and other toxic pollutants into our air, land, and water. I know from firsthand experience how dangerous and unnerving it can be to live among this pollution.

Thirty years ago, a neighbor found me lying unconscious in my yard. Although I cannot know with absolute certainty the cause for this infliction, it is highly likely that breathing toxic gases from a nearby oil well was the cause. There was another individual in the immediate area that also suffered from symptoms of methane poisoning. People in the region are self-diagnosing themselves with an ailment called the “Bakken cough” — a cough credited to oil and gas activity in the area. 

When a well is left abandoned, these harmful chemicals are left to leak for years at a time, causing immense health risks to the families and communities nearby. The physical infrastructure and machinery can also cause safety risks as it begins to deteriorate on private property and public lands. 

Right now, we have two options. We can either live with these dangers or force taxpayers to foot the cleanup bill. Neither option is fair, which is why these newly proposed bonding levels are so welcome.

These new protections will have another benefit. Leaking methane from orphaned wells is also a significant climate pollutant – 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As I write this, most of Montana is clouded in wildfire smoke. We have also seen more frequent and more severe droughts, floods, and other natural disasters fueled by increased climate pollution. These disasters harm our farmers and ranchers and threaten our food supply. Just last year, damages from climate-fueled disasters cost our country over 165 billion dollars

To protect our health, climate, and our wallets, we need to ensure these common sense rule updates are finalized.

Kirk Panasuk is a Bainville rancher and member of Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture organization.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Kirk Panasuk
Kirk Panasuk

Kirk Panasuk is a Bainville rancher and member of Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture organization.