The Appalachian region is home to many abandoned wells and mines, most of them in rural areas that have taken an economic hit during the pandemic. The administration’s new infrastructure plan could bring a wealth of jobs to areas in need: The Ohio River Valley Institute’s report claims that remediating wells and mines could bring 30,000 jobs to the region.
This ambitious new infrastructure plan proposes to “restore and reclaim” abandoned coal mines and plug former oil and gas wells in West Virginia and across the country. According to a fact sheet on the proposed legislation, abandoned mines, and oil rigs “pose serious safety hazards, while also causing ongoing air, water, and other environmental damage.” Cleaning up these sites would not only eliminate pollution but also introduce thousands of jobs to regions in need.
Abandoned wells and mines release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that negatively impacts local communities and the environment writ large. Non-profit think tank The Ohio River Valley Institute released a report showing that Central Appalachian mines release 71,000 metric tons of methane per year. By plugging the mines, the region could reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a rate equivalent to taking 383,000 passenger vehicles off the road. Abandoned well and mine sites are the 11th largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.
These sites also contribute to air and water pollution. Sediment from sites ends up in nearby rivers and streams, and gases leak from underground mines and sometimes cause fires. Since the late 70s, the Interior Department has led efforts to cap “orphaned” wells under the Abandoned Mine Land program. Biden’s current infrastructure plan would dramatically expand the AML program’s efforts.
“The good news here is we’re talking about bringing thousands of jobs to West Virginia and things that are ready to go, that could potentially be shovel-ready,” ORVI senior researcher Ted Boettner said. “It’s not about training people for jobs they don’t want in places they don’t want to be. It’s about having jobs locally in the region that build on the skills that are already here.”
The push to remediate AML sites has received bipartisan political support as well as backing from a number of environmental groups. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, praised the new infrastructure plan but acknowledged the challenges ahead.
“It cannot be forgotten that West Virginia coal miners powered our country to greatness. There is still much more work to be done to clean up damage to the land and water in those communities,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Wyoming Senator John Barrasso noted that he “has been very active in trying to re-evaluate and improve” the AML program.
The American Petroleum Institute has spoken out in favor of the infrastructure plan and its provisions with senior vice president Frank Macchiarola stating the industry “will continue to support efforts to plug these wells and further reduce methane emissions.” A number of environmental groups have also praised the plan including the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, Collin O’Mara. “The president’s plan proposes strategic investments that will make communities more resilient and healthier,” he said.