January 27, 2023

Congressman Castro Pushes to Limit New Oil and Gas Leases on Polluted Federal Lands

WASHINGTON – This week, Congressman Joaquin Castro (TX-20) introduced legislation to prohibit new oil and gas leases on federal lands with high concentration of existing orphaned oil and gas wells. The legislation was offered as an amendment to H.R. 21, the Strategic Production Response Act.

Congressman Castro Delivers Remarks on the House Floor

To view a full video of Rep. Castro’s remarks, click here.

The U.S. Geological Survey has documented more than 117,000 orphan wells across the United States and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as many as three million orphaned wells could exist across the country. The Railroad Commission of Texas has documented 266 orphaned wells in Bexar County, with the majority concentrated on San Antonio’s Southside. Without continuous oversight and monitoring, these wells can leech carcinogens into the groundwater and emit methane gases that contributes to global warming and pollution.

In November 2021, Congressman Castro voted to authorize $4.7 billion in orphan well remediation through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This past August, the Biden administration announced a $25 million grant for orphan well cleanup in Texas, the first payment of several grant allocations that will become available in the years ahead.

Congressman Castro’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, can be found below.

I rise to offer an amendment to the Strategic Production Reserve Act to prohibit the Secretary of Energy from approving new oil and gas leases on federal lands that have high concentrations of orphaned oil and gas wells.

Over the 160-year history of industrial oil and gas extraction in the United States, companies have dug millions of oil wells to fuel energy demands at home and around the world.

When the pumps run dry and the wells are no longer profitable, companies are  supposed to seal them up to stop toxic chemicals from escaping into the environment. Unfortunately, they often have not.

Between the lax regulations of the oil boom and the patchwork of current state and federal laws, oil companies have been able to shirk their responsibility to keep the communities around their wells safe.

Today, the American landscape is dotted with abandoned, uncapped wells that leak toxins into the air we breathe and the water we drink.

The U.S. Geological Survey has documented more than 117,000 orphaned wells, and the EPA estimates that as many as three million could exist across the country.

Last year, as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Congress authorized a $4.7 billion investment to plug orphaned wells and protect the areas around them from further environmental harm.

But even with this funding, the government is playing whack-a-mole -- with new orphaned wells emerging as we struggle to clean up the ones we already have.

Right now, as we debate over this bill, the largest owner of oil and gas wells in the country is teetering on the edge of a bankruptcy that could leave more than 70,000 orphaned wells spewing poison.

As taxpayers cover the tab for the mess that oil companies created, we should not be signing leases that open the door to a new generation of orphaned wells.

My state of Texas is the top oil-and-gas producing state in the nation, and I am acutely aware of how important the energy industry is to our state and national economy.

This amendment does not ask oil companies to repay taxpayers for the billions that we’ve already spent to clean up their toxic wells, and it does not prevent further drilling.

Instead, it pauses new drilling leases on federal lands with the highest concentration of orphaned wells – giving the government a chance to catch up with the cleanup efforts that are already underway.

This amendment would bring relief to the 14 million Americans who live within a mile of an orphaned well. I ask that my colleagues support this common-sense legislation.