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  • Writer's pictureVoces Unidas de las Montañas

Orphaned gas wells are a health and climate concern for communities of color

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist – or even a meteorologist – to know that it’s hot outside. In fact, this July is going down as the hottest month ever recorded. And you can feel it.

Some of us are feeling it more than others, unfortunately. We know that communities of color feel the impacts of global warming to a disproportionate degree due to poor housing and working conditions. Sadly, those communities are disproportionately exposed to the pollutants causing climate change too, further compounding the health impacts of global warming throughout Colorado.

Among the worst offenders is methane, a highly potent climate pollutant that is responsible for about one-third of current global warming due to human activities. Oil and gas wells – like those pocking the landscape of Garfield County, where Voces Unidas is based – are the nation’s largest industrial source of methane. Even more troubling, an average of 44.2 billion cubic feet of methane per year is wasted through well leaks, venting and flaring. That’s enough to power roughly 675,000 homes annually.

And then there are the orphaned wells. Orphaned wells are just what you might imagine, oil and gas wells that have been abandoned by their owners due to bankruptcy or some other misfortune, left unplugged to leak methane directly into the atmosphere. While only about 1,000 of Colorado’s 50,000 wells are currently orphaned, some 250 of those were literally abandoned overnight, demonstrating just how easy it is for operators to walk away with what amounts to a slap on the wrist as punishment.

That could easily happen again, even in Garfield County, where there are more than 12,000 active wells today. And while the consequences for well operators are generally insignificant, the implications for people are severe.

For starters, we are on the hook as taxpayers to pay the cost of capping orphaned wells – currently estimated at $4.6 billion statewide. But the cost of allowing the methane to continue spilling into our atmosphere is even greater.

Beyond the global warming impacts, methane directly affects the quality of the air we breath, essentially creating smog by increasing the concentration of ozone. Ozone exposure causes an estimated one million premature deaths a year worldwide due to respiratory illnesses. And the closer you live to the source, the greater the impacts.

At Voces Unidas, we are continuously fighting for Housing Justice, Environmental Justice, Health Justice and more, and these orphaned gas wells offer a vivid example of why. Latinos and communities of color are living on the front lines of these issues, exposed to pollutants and toxins because the only affordable housing opportunities are often located in the closest proximity to the polluters – whether it’s a leaky gas well, a refinery or some other source of pollution. The cycle must come to an end.

We were pleased to see that the state recently passed rules requiring the oil and gas industry to measure and verify that the intensity of methane emissions posing harm to both people and the environment do not exceed legal standards. And we support rule changes proposed by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that would modernize fees and penalties for oil and gas leasing and address methane emissions from wells on public land.

While a lot more is clearly needed to address the environmental impacts of oil and gas on communities of color, these new rules are a step in the right direction to hold oil and gas facilities more accountable for their emissions.


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