A jobs program to plug deserted oil wells feels like a win-win. Is it?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the oil industry, America was full of defunct oil wells. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions of holes in the ground — no one knows how many there really are — abandoned by their former overseers when oil stopped gushing to the surface or when those overseers went broke. The holes leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that’s heats the planet 86 times more than CO2 in the short term, as well as other pollutants. In a world changed by the coronavirus, with bankruptcies among oil and gas producers rising, the problem is expected to get worse.

A report from Resources for the Future, a nonprofit research institution, and Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy asked whether there might be a joint solution to the economic crisis wrought by the pandemic and the ballooning problem of abandoned wells: a federally-funded jobs program that would put oil and gas workers back to work plugging up the holes. The program would be administered by the state-level regulatory bodies that currently oversee well-plugging.

It’s an attractive idea, and the authors are not the first to present it. Similar schemes have been simmering among state leaders, environmental groups, and liberal think tanks over the last few months; a version was proposed in an infrastructure bill that was passed by the House of Representatives in early July; and Canada recently dedicated $1.7 billion to such a program. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

The scale of the abandoned wells problem and the cost of doing something about it are wildly uncertain. The new report attempts to work within that uncertainty to show what a jobs program could reasonably accomplish, while also warning of the risks of having taxpayers pay to clean up the oil industry’s mess.

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