In Central Appalachia an estimated 538,000 unplugged oil and gas wells and 853,393 acres of abandoned mine lands sit unreclaimed, often polluting the air and water and presenting public safety threats.
But according to two new reports from the regional think tank Ohio River Valley Institute, these sites that now pose serious health risks to residents could be providing thousands of jobs for the region. The group’s findings indicate that, should the federal government take the risk seriously and invest in mitigation, not only would environmental risk be reduced, but thousands of well-paying jobs could potentially be created.
Plugging Abandoned Wells
In the first report, Repairing the Damage from Hazardous Oil and Gas Wells, senior researcher Ted Boettner found that abandoned oil and gas wells pose a significant threat to humans through air and water pollution.
Boettner found that the cost of plugging abandoned oil and gas wells may be more than states could afford, and urged federal investment in cleanup efforts. He said a large scale federal program could prevent the emissions equivalent of two million tons of coal per year. This could be paid for by eliminating $11 billion in federal oil and gas subsidies, or imposing a small fee per unit, similar to that levied on coal through the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program. Such action could potentially spur large-scale job creation.
“Over 20 years,” Boettner said, “you could create over 15,000 jobs each year.”
In the second report, Repairing the Damage, research fellow Eric Dixon estimated that repairing abandoned mine sites could cost as much as $24.4 billion. As sites continue to erode and deteriorate, he said, that cost could rise to as much as $33 billion. Over 5500 miles of streams, Dixon estimates, have been clogged by sediment and runoff, dramatically altering the hydrology of the landscape.
“There’s also a lot of poor vegetation on these sites that isn’t sequestering the carbon that it could be, if we had reforested these sites,” Dixon said.
Reforestation is a major recommendation in the report, which suggests that programs such as the Biden Administration’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps could put thousands of workers in ecologically sustainable jobs doing just that. Potentially, this could teach workers valuable skills. Dixon believes that widespread employment on old mine sites would be most effective when coupled with a living wage, good benefits, and widespread unionization in the workforce.
“To address climate change and tackle our region’s persistent inequality head-on,” he said, “Congress should consider creating a public reclamation jobs program within a Civilian Climate Corps, to make sure reclamation jobs are accessible to those most in need.”
Between mines and wells, the institute identified 30,000 potential new jobs in Appalachia.
This research comes on the heels of the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan, which promises job creation in the United States through rebuilding and repairing vital infrastructure.
The research was co-presented by Reimagine Appalachia, a coalition of Appalachian organizations which previously developed a blueprint for a 21st century New Deal, a plan for rebuilding the middle class through diverse, union jobs in clean energy and environmental restoration.