Navajo Nation among tribes getting $40M to clean up orphan oil, gas wells

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Friday, September 22, 2023 - 7:05am

Audio icon Download mp3 (1.31 MB)

Navajo Nation
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
A sign welcomes travelers to the Navajo Nation on July 13, 2021.

Indigenous communities have long been unduly burdened by environmental pollution.

Now, the Biden administration has sent nearly $40 million to help tribal communities plug and remediate orphaned oil and gas wells.

Nearly $5 million will go to the Navajo Nation to plug an estimated 21 wells.

“It is our responsibility to tackle these harmful impacts and ensure that future generations have access to clean air, drinkable water and healthy, balanced ecosystems,” said Winnie Stachelberg, senior advisor and infrastructure coordinator at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

These legacy pollutants contaminate groundwater, harm wildlife, strew the countryside with rusting, dangerous equipment and contribute to greenhouse emissions to boot.

The department says the $40 million is the first installment of $150 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Work reduces harmful methane leaks

Table show Tribal Orphaned Wells Grant Awards
U.S. Department of the Interior
Table showing Phase 1 of the Tribal Orphaned Wells Grant Awards from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Another $560 million was provided to states in August 2022 to address orphan wells, and nearly $100 million more is earmarked for dealing with the problem on public lands and waters.

The new funds will reduce harmful methane leaks while also supporting tribal nations as they grow their economies, create jobs and improve public safety.

“This is a key component of many of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law programs: building out the infrastructure to equip tribes now and into the future,” said assistant secretary for Indian affairs Bryan Newland, who is an Ojibwe member of the Bay Mills Indian community near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

More than $34 million will go toward well-plugging and remediation, while just under $5 million will fund the capacity-building needed to prep for such activities.

“There's measuring the depth of the wells; there's assessing the type of cement that's going to be needed,” said Stachelberg. “So, there's a lot of work that needs to be done before the actual plugging and sealing takes place.”

In the department’s release, administration officials emphasized the leadership role played by the tribal communities.

More stories from KJZZ