Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

36 hours left in this Mid-Year Campaign. This is our hour of need.
If you value independent journalism, please support Common Dreams.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on outside Williston, North Dakota. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images) 

'Privatize the Profit, Socialize the Mess': Abandoned Fracking Wells Left Spewing Climate-Killing Methane Nationwide

"Are we going to be responsible for the mess that these companies leave behind?"

Eoin Higgins

A devastating new report from the New York Times details how as fracking companies are going out of business they are leaving behind unsecured wells spewing methane and other gases into the atmosphere and paying out the same executives that drove them into bankruptcy huge bonuses—drawing condemnation from activists and climate advocates. 

"Frackers don't clean up after themselves," tweeted 350.org founder Bill McKibben.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. fracking industry was struggling amid debt obligations, the rise of renewable energy sources, and a price war with overseas oil producers. Since the pandemic hit, critics have been warning against using public relief funds to bail out the polluting industry they argue should be banned because of its impact on local health and the climate.

As the companies filed for bankruptcy, the Times reported, they made sure to pay out executives:

Whiting Petroleum, a major shale driller in North Dakota that sought bankruptcy protection in April, approved almost $15 million in cash bonuses for its top executives six days before its bankruptcy filing. Chesapeake Energy, a shale pioneer, declared bankruptcy last month, just weeks after it paid $25 million in bonuses to a group of executives. And Diamond Offshore Drilling secured a $9.7 million tax refund under the Covid-19 stimulus bill Congress passed in March, before filing to reorganize in bankruptcy court the next month. Then it won approval from a bankruptcy judge to pay its executives the same amount, as cash incentives.

"The few profit, the rest of us pay," British Green Party politician Natalie Bennett said on Twitter.

But while the businesses had millions to pay out to top executives, they have chosen not to spend capital to properly close wells that are emitting methane and other gases into the atmosphere. Capping wells would cost tens of millions of dollars, the Times reports, a cost the companies apparently aren't willing to bear.

"Hard to overstate what a climate catastrophe it is to just leave a methane spigot on and leave," tweeted The Intercept's Ryan Grim.

There are an estimated two million such unplugged wells in the U.S., according to the Times.

"They're sitting there and they're leaking," North America at Carbon Tracker executive director Robert Schuwerk told the Times. "And they're much leakier than a well that’s still in production and being monitored, although those leak, too."

Emissions could result in cancers and other diseases in surrounding communities. Patricia Garcia Nelson of Greeley, Colorado told the Times that with high levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the air monitored at her seven-year-old son's school, just 700 feet away from an Extraction Oil & Gas fracking site, she fears the company's bankruptcy will leave the well open and uncapped.

"Are we going to be responsible for the mess that these companies leave behind?" asked Nelson. "Are we going to be okay if something happens?"

The cost of the cleanup, noted journalist Jake Bernstein, is prohibitive—and companies don't appear to be taking it seriously.

"Chesapeake Energy, which declared bankruptcy last month after paying out executive bonuses, has potential cleanup costs of $1.4 billion," said Bernstein. "Chesapeake's filings show that it has set aside only $41 million in bonds to cover the cleanup of its 6,800 wells."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Just ONE DAY left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

'We Will Fight! We Will Win!': Nearly 200 Abortion Rights Defenders Arrested in DC

"If people don't see the rage," said one woman at the protest, "nothing changes."

Jon Queally ·


Federal Abortion Ban Desired by GOP Would Increase Maternal Deaths by 24%: Study

"Pregnancy shouldn't kill people—in fact, in other rich countries it very rarely does," said the lead author of the new analysis.

Jake Johnson ·


Naomi Klein: The US Is in the Midst of a 'Shock-and-Awe Judicial Coup'

"The rolling judicial coup coming from this court is by no means over," warned the author of "The Shock Doctrine."

Jake Johnson ·


Markey, Bowman Join Climate Coalition in Urging SCOTUS Expansion

"We cannot sit idly by," said Markey, "as extremists on the Supreme Court eviscerate the authorities that the government has had for decades to combat climate change and reduce pollution."

Brett Wilkins ·


Ocasio-Cortez Says US 'Witnessing a Judicial Coup in Process'

"It is our duty to check the Court's gross overreach of power in violating people's inalienable rights and seizing for itself the powers of Congress and the president."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo