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Feds invest in addressing 'orphan wells' on Montana tribal lands

Helping landowners cap 'orphaned' wells in Montana
Posted at 6:41 PM, Sep 21, 2023

HELENA — On Thursday, the federal government announced how it’s going to distribute around $40 million to help clean up orphaned oil and gas wells in Indian Country – and four Montana tribes will be getting support.

The U.S. Department of the Interior unveiled a first round of grants to plug wells on tribal lands. During a press call, department leaders said tribal communities have been disproportionately burdened by the impacts of these wells.

“Addressing legacy pollution will have a big impact on our environment, our water quality and the health and well-being of our communities, but it also provides an opportunity for economic revitalization of tribes to begin these projects,” said Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.

When an oil or gas well reaches the end of its useful life, it is typically “plugged and abandoned” – meaning the well shaft is filled with cement, it’s capped at the surface and the site is restored to how it was before drilling began. An “orphaned” well is one that hasn’t been plugged and no longer has a responsible operator to complete the work.

The Fort Belknap Indian Community and the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Reservation are each receiving $1 million to identify and assess dozens of orphaned wells on their lands.

“There's a lot of upfront work that has to be done before the plugging actually can take place – there’s measuring the depth of the wells, there’s assessing the type of cement that's going to be needed,” said Winnie Stachelberg, a senior advisor and infrastructure coordinator for the Interior Department.

The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation will receive $2.34 million to assess more than 100 wells and plug another seven.

In addition, the department announced that, at the request of the Crow Tribe, they will directly administer a contract to cap and reclaim 11 wells on their land.

Interior leaders said orphaned wells can leak methane, contaminate groundwater, harm wildlife and leave rusted equipment out in the landscape.

The money for these grants comes from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure law. Department leaders said they eventually plan to distribute a total of $150 million dollars for tribal lands, and the next round of funding opportunities should be announced in the coming months.

This funding comes on top of a $25 million grant Montana received from Interior last year, to help cap more than 200 orphaned wells on state and private lands. The department has also directed funds to respond to wells on federal property.


Impact of orphaned oil and gas wells in Montana