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Biden plan would spend $16B to clean up old mines, oil wells

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion plan to transform America’s infrastructure includes $16 billion to plug old oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mines, a longtime priority for Western and rural lawmakers from both parties.

Hundreds of thousands of “orphaned” oil and gas wells and abandoned coal and hardrock mines pose serious safety hazards, while causing ongoing environmental damage. The administration sees the long-standing problem as an opportunity to create jobs and remediate pollution, including greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Biden said last week he wants to put pipefitters and miners to work capping the wells “at the same price that they would charge to dig those wells.”

Many of the old wells and mines are located in rural communities that have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Biden’s plan would not only create jobs, but help reduce methane and brine leaks that pollute the air and groundwater. Methane is a powerful contributor to global warming.

The Interior Department has long led efforts to cap orphaned wells - so named because no owner can be found - but does not assess user fees to cover reclamation costs. Bond requirements for well operators, when known, are often inadequate to cover full cleanup costs.

Biden’s plan, which needs approval by Congress, would jump-start the well-capping effort and expand it dramatically.

Similarly, the White House plan would exponentially boost an Abandoned Mine Land program run by Interior that uses fees paid by coal mining companies to reclaim coal mines abandoned before 1977. About $8 billion has been disbursed to states for mine-reclamation projects in the past four decades, but Biden’s plan would ramp up spending sharply.

Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has long pushed to expand the mine-lands program, which he calls crucial to his state.

“It cannot be forgotten that West Virginia coal miners powered our country to greatness,” Manchin said. While many mine lands in coal communities have been reclaimed, “there is still much more work to be done to clean up damage to the land and water in those communities,’’ he said.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate energy panel, ridiculed Biden’s overall plan as “an out-of-control socialist spending spree.”

The proposal “starts with the punishing policies of the Green New Deal and builds back worse from there,’’ Barrasso said in statement. The plan would hike taxes and “spend trillions of dollars on the left’s radical agenda,” he added.

A spokeswoman said Barrasso has “has been very active in trying to re-evaluate and improve” the Abandoned Mine Land program. Barrasso is working with Manchin and other committee members to “responsibly reauthorize AML fee collection and facilitate reclamation (of mine sites) across the country,” spokeswoman Sarah Durdaller said.

Environmental groups hailed the announcement, saying unplugged wells and abandoned mines pose a significant environmental threat. Some former drilling or mining sites have sat unattended for decades.