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Drilling rig

A pump jack operates on April 23, 2020 in Eddy County, New Mexico. (Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)

Critics Say Big Oil Would Benefit From Bipartisan Bill's Taxpayer-Funded Cleanup

Rather than helping fossil fuel giants externalize the costs of plugging abandoned oil and gas wells, progressives argue, lawmakers should force polluters to pay for the damages they have caused.

Kenny Stancil

If enacted, a bipartisan infrastructure bill's plan to plug abandoned oil and gas wells would force taxpayers—rather than polluters—to pay for cleaning up messes caused by drilling, according to policy experts, who warned Tuesday that congressional lawmakers' proposal amounts to another multibillion-dollar subsidy for the planet-wrecking fossil fuel industry.

"Concerned parties seem to agree on the scale of the crisis: millions of wells sit untended across the U.S., leaking toxins that pose public health problems along with the potent greenhouse gas methane, which contributes to the climate emergency," The Guardian reported.

"But powerful special interests," the newspaper noted, "have carved out a presence in federal well-plugging efforts—one of the most bipartisan" aspects of the $550 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which the Senate passed last month with the support of President Joe Biden and the House is expected to consider next week.

Instead of requiring fossil fuel corporations to cover the full cost of extraction and environmental remediation, the IIJA would pass cleanup costs on to the public. Making taxpayers foot the bill while letting the industry most responsible for fueling the climate crisis off the hook, progressive critics of the legislation argue, subsidizes drilling and may even incentivize more of it.

"People on the surface think that this is a good environmental thing... but the devil is in the details," Megan Milliken Biven, an environmental policy consultant who has advocated for the creation of an Abandoned Well Administration, told The Guardian. "This is a bill for the bosses."

According to The Guardian:

Congress' 30-page proposal does provide a much-needed plan to inventory, measure, and track methane emissions and groundwater contamination associated with orphan wells—abandoned wells with no identifiable owner.

But tucked inside the proposal is $2 million in funding that goes directly to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), an organization closely linked to the fossil fuel industry. The draft bill empowers the group to consult with the federal government as it issues billions of dollars in grants for states to plug, remediate, and restore orphan wells.

Although the IIJA "treats the commission innocuously, granting it duties and access to federal research and development funds as if it were a formal government entity," the newspaper noted, "it's not":

On its website, the IOGCC calls itself a "multi-state government agency." But it also claims exemption from public information laws. Although the group has said it does not lobby, according to ProPublica, it has spent an estimated $100,000 on Capitol Hill since March 2019 lobbying for favorable well-plugging programs—which may explain the group's inclusion in the bill.

The IOGCC was originally sanctioned by the government. But as an InsideClimate investigation found, in 1978 the Department of Justice recommended that Congress break it up on the grounds that the group had evolved into an advocacy organization. Its influence, through a membership network it wines and dines, has reached its tentacles into state legislatures across the country, with copy-and-pasted legislation advancing oil and gas interests.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt currently chairs the group. Stitt, who received more than $240,000 in campaign donations from the oil and gas sector in 2018, is known for urging the Environmental Protection Agency to strip Indigenous tribes of regulatory authority over their land, and for co-signing a letter urging the Biden administration to resume oil and gas leasing on public lands.

The office of Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who co-sponsored the legislation, said the IOGCC was tapped for its technical expertise, asserting that "consultation is distinct from control."

But Jesse Coleman, senior researcher at the watchdog group Documented, argued that empowering the IOGCC, "which is funded by the oil and gas industry," to administer the abandoned well cleanup program takes "power away from actual government agencies that do have oversight and accountability."

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—who has made more than $4.5 million from his family's coal business since joining the Senate in 2010 and received praise from an ExxonMobil lobbyist for obstructing climate action—played a key role in crafting the energy-related measures in the IIJA, which progressives have criticized for prioritizing fossil fuels over renewables.

Another bill, a draft of which Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) circulated last month, would take a step toward making polluters pay.

The legislation—which Van Hollen said he was "optimistic" would be attached to the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act that congressional Democrats hope to pass through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process—would tax the 25 to 30 corporations that contributed the most greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2019, potentially raising up to $500 billion over a decade.

The reconciliation package, however, is in jeopardy. And even though the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have both warned that averting catastrophic levels of global warming requires rapidly moving away from fossil fuels, Manchin "is preparing to write the climate portion of the budget bill in a way that would... protect and extend the use of coal and natural gas," the New York Times reported Sunday.

Despite his serious conflicts of interest—in addition to benefiting from his family's coal company, Manchin has also received more campaign money from the fossil fuel industry than any other senator during the current election cycle—the West Virginia Democrat chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, putting him in a position to "remake President Biden's climate legislation," the Times noted.

Why shouldn't the burden of funding climate action "fall on the true authors of the climate emergency?" journalist Mark Hertsgaard, executive director of Covering Climate Now, asked in an essay published last week.

"Fossil fuel companies have known for decades that they were driving civilization to ruin. They didn't care," Hertsgaard wrote. "Indeed, they lied to keep the profits rolling in. Isn't it time for them to start paying for the trouble and suffering they've caused?"

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