The new bill on infrastructure will finance depollution. But will he hold the polluters accountable?
The $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill, passed late last week in a frenzied overnight vote, is not the Biden administration’s flagship climate package. It is still the subject of debate in the Senate. But it still reshapes U.S. environmental policy: The bill takes unprecedented action to tackle pollution from industrial sites, abandoned mines, and orphaned oil and gas wells.
The bill will inject billions of dollars into the federal government’s Superfund program, which cleans up the most polluted areas in the country. Superfund sites include old aluminum smelters that left the soil contaminated with arsenic, military bases that dumped jet fuel, benzene, and mustard gas into the ground, and even a plume of chemicals. chlorinated under Brooklyn. By the end of 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency had cleaned up just over 1,500 sites.
In theory, the company that created the pollution is supposed to pay for the cleanup of a Superfund site. But in about one in three cases, those parts have gone bankrupt or gone by the time remediation begins, and the EPA foots the bill.
To pay for these cases, the new infrastructure bill reinstates a tax on imported chemicals and toxic metals, such as benzene, chlorine and cobalt. This tax expired in the 1990s, but its reinstatement is expected to bring in $ 14 billion over the course of a decade. E&E News reports.
“By renewing the Superfund tax, the industries that helped create the problem – not the taxpayers – will again be held accountable for cleaning it up,” said one of its sponsors, Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. , according to the American bar. Association.
After the tax expired, the EPA ran out of money to begin cleanups and claim reimbursements from polluters, the Center for Public Integrity wrote in 2010. The trust fund it used to pay polluters cleanups fell from $ 4.7 billion to $ 173 million between 1997 and 2007, and work at new sites fell by two-thirds in the early 2000s. A February report by the Public Interest Research Group found that ‘In 2020, 34 construction projects could have started, but did not do so due to a lack of funding.
This made the communities vulnerable to the toxic effects of the remaining sites. In 2019, the United States Government Accountability Office reported that 187 high priority sites were susceptible to flooding during a major hurricane, which can widely circulate pollutants in floodwaters and seep into a larger expanse of land. Communities of color are particularly at risk; 26% of Black Americans and 29% of Hispanics live within 3 miles of a Superfund site.
It was not just senators focused on environmental justice who supported the reinstatement of the tax. Republicans like Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, one of the nation’s chemical manufacturing hubs, who says it’s worth it alongside the other provisions of the infrastructure bill. âOh, this is going to be huge. This will encourage the expansion of chemical factories and all the service industries that work with these factories, âhe told Baton Rouge television station WAFB.
Orphan well cleaning
The infrastructure bill also does something new: it orders the Department of Energy to develop a program to clean up oil and gas wells that were “orphaned” when the companies that rented them went out of business. . According to an estimate of Reuters, there were between 3 and 9 million such abandoned wells in the United States in 2018.
These wells can leak for decades, spewing poisonous gases and liquids poisoned by oil or fracking chemicals. The pipes that serve them are also often abandoned: about 97% of abandoned pipes in the Gulf of Mexico remained in place, according to GAO. This year, an abandoned pipeline off the coast of Louisiana ruptured after Hurricane Ida, causing a spill of several miles.
Abandoned oil and gas infrastructure also emits methane, which warms the planet 80 times faster than CO2 during its first 20 years in the atmosphere. The EPA estimates that in total, orphan wells are responsible for the equivalent of about two coal-fired power plants each year.
Orphan wells are the result of boom and bust cycles in oil and gas. In boom years, when oil prices are high, small businesses go into drilling. When the market goes bankrupt, they go bankrupt. In some cases, large companies even sell their leases to smaller operators who cannot afford to pay for the cleanup. Drilling companies often have to pay upfront fees to cover well closures, but those payments aren’t high enough to cover the full cost, according to an analysis by think-tank Carbon Tracker.
This means that taxpayers foot the bill for historic drilling. In one case, the city of Beverly Hills paid $ 40 million to plug abandoned wells on school district property that an oil company was leasing for just $ 1 million a year.
The infrastructure bill sets aside $ 4.7 billion to begin the process of cataloging and closing these wells. The Biden administration touts the program as a job creator in the oil country: Oil and gas workers will likely be the ones removing pipelines, pouring cement plugs into wells, and restoring the surrounding soil. The bill also gives the closure program the power to sue the company “associated with the orphan well” to cover costs, although it is not known how effective this will be. But as the Guardian reported, the bill could end up creating an incentive for oil companies to neglect the cleanup while waiting for the federal government to cover the costs.
Carbon Tracker estimates that it will cost around $ 280 billion to plug all the wells on the continental United States, and dealing with offshore infrastructure will be even more expensive. And as the global economy moves away from fossil fuels, that number is likely to increase dramatically as the wells close. The billions of dollars are the start of a new push to fix the problem, but they almost certainly won’t be the end.