Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
How does the bipartisan infrastructure package, which just passed the Senate, approach the mounting problem of orphaned oil and gas wells?
In a rare bipartisan vote this Tuesday, the Senate passed a nearly $1-trillion infrastructure bill, which includes provisions on physical infrastructure, electric vehicles, grid resilience, and more. The timeline for a vote in the House is unclear: House progressives have threatened to derail a vote on the bill until the Senate passes an additional, further-reaching infrastructure package through the reconciliation process, while other Democratic lawmakers have expressed reservations about excessive spending. Although some environmentalists have criticized the $1-trillion package for not including enough climate spending, the bill that passed the Senate this week does devote $21 billion toward environmental remediation efforts—more than what President Joe Biden even proposed at the outset of negotiations. The bill allocates $4.7 billion of the total $21 billion to decommissioning orphaned oil and gas wells, many of which have been abandoned by insolvent companies and continue to leak methane.
In a new blog post, RFF Fellow Daniel Raimi—who has closely studied the potential for a federal well plugging program—discusses how the infrastructure bill addresses orphaned wells and sketches out challenges ahead for cleanup. Raimi says that the bill represents “a modest down payment on a much larger tab,” contending that the bill’s $4.7 billion in funds—mostly to plug tens of thousands of orphaned wells, along with some needed support for new research—are helpful, but will not do enough to confront the full scale of the problem. In particular, Raimi says that more funds are necessary to catalog the currently undocumented abandoned wells and that state governments need to do more to ensure that taxpayers are not on the hook when oil and gas companies can’t afford well cleanup. “Let’s be clear: without regulatory reform, millions more oil and gas wells could become orphaned in the future,” Raimi says. “That means hundreds of billions of dollars in decommissioning costs may fall to taxpayers rather than the operators that are legally obligated to pay them.”
Related research and commentary:
- Blog: The INVEST in America Act: A Modest First Step to Addressing the Orphaned Wells Problem
- Journal Article: Decommissioning Orphaned and Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells: New Estimates and Cost Drivers
- Report: Green Stimulus for Oil and Gas Workers: Considering a Major Federal Effort to Plug Orphaned and Abandoned Wells
How do visitors to national parks respond to the threat of wildfires?
The western United States is confronting an intense fire season, with more than 100 large fires currently burning across the region—including the Dixie Fire, the second-largest fire in California state history. State policymakers across the West have occasionally restricted access to natural areas in response to wildfire threats, poor air quality, and extreme temperatures: in July, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources temporarily closed state lands and conservation areas, while the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks restricted access to fishing streams. Still, the hazardous weather and wildfire threats this summer apparently have not deterred tourists from spending time outdoors. National parks across the western United States—from Zion National Park to the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone—have seen a record influx of visitors, even as fires spread, temperatures rise, and smoke degrades air quality across the nation.
A recent working paper from RFF’s Margaret Walls and Matthew Wibbenmeyer, along with Jacob Gellman of the University of California, Santa Barbara, considers how an increase in wildfire activity in the western United States has impacted outdoor recreation. Assessing daily camping data at 1,069 campgrounds over a 10-year period, the scholars estimate that 392,000 visitor-days are affected by fire, while approximately 1 million visitor-days are affected by smoke. They find that campground use declines in response to these adverse conditions, but only slightly, and that trip cancellations were less prevalent in more popular parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. Consequently, campers averse to cancelling their planned trips expose themselves to poor air quality and increase the risk of negative health effects. “Policymakers will need to devise creative strategies to both reduce the likelihood and severity of fires and mitigate their impacts on outdoor recreationists,” the authors conclude.
Related research and commentary:
How can Wyoming—as a state historically reliant on fossil fuel revenues—adapt as the economy shifts to cleaner sources of energy?
As COVID-19 forced people inside, shuttered businesses, and obstructed global supply chains, the demand for fossil fuels declined precipitously. For a state like Wyoming, which historically has depended on fossil fuels, this rapid shift in energy demand could have staggering economic impacts. Taxes on fossil fuels currently account for over half of Wyoming’s budget, so declining energy consumption could make it harder for the state to pay for vital social services. But Wyoming is beginning to embrace an unexpected savior for a fossil fuel–producing state: wind power. With its open landscape and high wind speeds, the state has enormous potential for wind energy, something investors have noted. Several large-scale wind farms—together comprising more than 1,000 turbines—currently are under construction and could bring much-needed revenue and jobs as the state’s fossil fuel economy confronts economic headwinds.
On a new episode of Resources Radio, University of Wyoming Associate Professor Robert Godby discusses how the clean energy transition in Wyoming is playing out, along with the consequences of the state’s traditional reliance on fossil fuels. Godby highlights that Wyoming’s long history of fossil fuel production presents a challenge as the United States shifts toward cleaner energies, potentially leaving the state with underfunded social services and an insufficiently diverse economy. “Really the only other state that probably has an equivalent dependence on fossil fuel revenues is Alaska,” Godby says, adding that “in a place like Wyoming, the affected community is not just a single place—it’s the entire state.” Godby also acknowledges the challenges that policymakers face, as a transition to clean energy could impose burdens on fossil fuel workers and communities. “Moving toward a less carbon-intensive economy is going to require transition and displacement,” he notes, “and we are one of the epicenters.”
Related research and commentary:
This week’s #FactOfTheWeek draws from a new United Nations report on climate change.
Dr. Thomas Spaeter / Shutterstock
According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change is making extreme heat events significantly more likely. In other words, a heat event that would have occurred once in 50 years on average in a climate without human influence will likely occur 13.9 times every 50 years on average in a world where global temperatures have risen by 2 degrees Celsius.