Biden Could Hire Jobless Oil and Gas Workers to Plug Abandoned Oil Wells

Amid Winter Storm Uri’s historic freeze, the oil and gas industry continued cutting jobs. On February 15, ConocoPhillips Alaska announced it would lay off almost 100 workers after the company acquired Texas oil company Concho Resources Inc. The ConocoPhillips news came on the heels of a slew of layoffs Marathon Oil revealed on February 11, the same day Shell disclosed its oil production had officially peaked in 2019. In all, more than 112,000 oil and gas workers lost their jobs in 2020.

Industry groups have been quick to blame the Biden administration’s executive orders on climate and environmental justice, such as the Day One decision to shut down the Keystone XL pipeline, which the American Petroleum Institute called a “slap in the face” to union workers. In fact, oil and gas companies have been the source of their own dwindling jobs numbers — replacing workers with robots or prison labor in the name of “safety.”

But if the Biden administration does proceed with economy-wide decarbonization efforts on scale with what climate scientists say it will take to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis, the administration will inevitably contribute to the shedding of more industry jobs. Doing as much without genuinely and visibly providing economic stability for workers could further impede support for critical emissions-reducing climate policies on the part of lawmakers and constituents in regions dependent on extractive industries.

Mijin Cha, professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College, says oil, gas and coal communities are understandably skeptical that federal climate policy might improve their daily lives. “We have a long history of leaving workers behind, so when they hear [energy] transition, they just think, ‘I’m losing my job,’” she told Truthout, referring to examples like the 168,403 manufacturing jobs Michigan lost as a result of the North American Fair Trade Agreement. “We have to show that we can create good jobs that pay well that are union jobs.”

Pat Anderson* has a degree in geology and used to work as a well seismologist, measuring gases released from oil drilling sites to build models of the dynamics at play within the bored holes. Anderson, who lives in Pennsylvania and says he supports Biden’s fracking ban on federal lands, points out that many working in the oil industry, like himself, come from modest backgrounds. The allure of oil industry wages is not only attractive, but one of the last living-wage career paths that’s attainable without necessarily needing to invest in a college education.

“You always hear, ‘These people can go work on renewables,’ but frankly, those renewable jobs don’t pay anything close to working on a rig … so I think that’s a tough pill to swallow for a lot of people,” Anderson said. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary for solar panel installers was $44,890 in 2019, in comparison with $74,660 for an “installer” working in the oil and gas industry.

A Prelude to Green Jobs?

Megan Milliken Biven, a former regulator for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, told Truthout she thinks the federal government could work swiftly to channel many oil and gas workers’ highly specific skills into dealing with the environmental health and safety catastrophe the industry is leaving in its wake.

According to Environmental Health News, over 55,000 oil and gas wells dot U.S. federal waters alone, about half of which have been permanently abandoned and leaking harmful gases, including methane, in perpetuity. Methane is an estimated 86 times more potent in terms of its warming impact than its sibling greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, in the first two decades of its release into the atmosphere.

A Reuters analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data estimates that there are 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells across U.S. land and waters, cumulatively responsible for emitting 281 kilotons of methane in 2018 — or the equivalent of burning through 16 million barrels of crude oil.

For companies that have plugged these wells, no legal requirements exist for monitoring them, which is one reason behind regular explosions like the one that killed two people in a Colorado subdivision built on an oil field. As part and parcel of comprehensive climate policy, Biven thinks the Biden administration should pass something akin to what she calls the Abandoned Well Act. It’s a concept Biven envisions could employ every oil and gas worker who’s lost their job during the pandemic, putting to use highly specific, often difficult-to-transfer skills to plug the holes and monitor the wells they are uniquely equipped to decommission. The act would create 30 field offices to do this, and could be funded by revising tax code such that oil and gas companies are required to pay taxes on each idle well, plus earnings on stocks and futures, according to Biven’s calculations.

A version of the plan has yet to be formally adopted or proposed by members of Congress, though other researchers have proposed similar concepts. A July report by Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy suggests a federal program to plug 500,000 abandoned wells could employ as many as 120,000 workers.
Remediating infrastructure like wells and pipelines might also be considered a precondition to other “green jobs” infrastructure overhaul projects, including those Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps would tackle, as the threat of explosion from undetected or unmonitored presence of wells could endanger workers employed in other future programs, such as regenerating forests or restoring coastal ecosystems.

When asked about the idea of a new agency to tackle abandoned wells such as the one Biven has proposed, Anderson, the Pennsylvania gas worker, pointed out that officials in his state have “no idea” how many wells exist. “That’s enough to keep every Pennsylvania [oil and gas] worker employed,” he said, in jobs like geotagging well-sites to create comprehensive maps.

However, Anderson anticipates this could pose an “identity” issue for rig workers in terms of understanding and explaining their role reversal in the shift from drilling to plugging. Research by scholars, such as University of Vermont sociology professor Shannon Elizabeth Bell and University of Oregon sociology professor Richard York, suggests that extractive industries like coal have appropriated cultural icons that exploit masculinity among workers and construct an identity around their job, which has contributed to resistance among workers to wider environmental and health concerns linked to their industries.
Another cultural rift that requires tending grew stark after The New York Times published a story profiling recent college petroleum engineers or those in training, whose degrees were landing them in a dead-end job market with thousands in student debt.

“Oh boo hoo!” one self-described activist posted on Twitter.

“Without fail, the NYT finds the biggest pieces of shit to humanize,” wrote another user.

Others pointed out that the story smacked of an oil industry-funded public relations push for industry sympathy. The New York Times has a long history of publishing fossil fuel company ads.

Such strong reactions demonstrated the chasm between a swath of the climate movement and some parts of the labor movement, which could be one reason comprehensive climate legislation has thus far failed to gain adequate support in Congress.

Many workers have pursued oil and gas careers because they are lucrative in an economy with few well-paying options. Vilifying workers who have made that choice is not only personally irksome to Biven, she says, but deflects blame from those actually responsible for the climate and economic crisis, namely fossil fuel executives.

“Solidarity does not mean that we have to agree on everything; it means that we have a similar suffering, we have a similar pain and we’re going to unite in that pain,” Biven said.

Juan, a former oil and gas worker from Ibagué, Colombia, who has requested Truthout use his first name only for fear of compromising future employment opportunities, came to the U.S. to study petroleum engineering at the University of Oklahoma. After finishing his degree in 2013, he worked as a driller for seven years, but was laid off in April 2020.

“You’re disposable,” he told Truthout about working in the industry, to which he has reservations about ever returning. Juan says he has recently gotten hired by a railroad tech company on account of having learned to code and do data analysis in his spare time. But he’s taken a $30,000 pay cut. “[We need] re-education for people that are pretty much stranded,” Juan said.

Beyond the Mine-to-Turbine Pastiche

Too often, Cha tells Truthout, a “just transition” is envisioned as a single-gear shift in which a rig worker or coal miner transfers directly into a job installing solar panels. This is plausible in some areas, which a new Brookings report refers to as “Goldilocks” communities. But the reality is more jagged.
For one, there tends to be a geographic mismatch. “A lot of the regions that will lose oil, gas and coal jobs are not necessarily well-suited for solar and wind, and certainly right now are not where solar and wind are being developed,” Cha said. In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where she recently conducted research, coal mining happens in the northeast corner of the state. Wind generation opportunities, by contrast, are by and large located in the southeast corner. Counting on a one-off skills transfer would shift the burden of the energy transition to workers, by requiring them to relocate or spend extra time away from their families.

“We don’t want to assume that people are going to move,” Cha said. “And we don’t want to [create] all these dead communities across the country.”

Cha acknowledges that academics and policy experts are far from understanding the full inventory of fossil fuel industry workers’ skills, and what laid-off workers want. In September 2020, a Greenpeace UK group called Platform London published the results of a survey of just under 1,400 oil and gas workers, which found that 81.7 percent of workers were open to moving to a job outside of oil and gas due to concerns over long-term job security and frustration with safety, contracts and hostile working conditions. No study exists to that scale in the U.S., though scholars, including Cha, have been analyzing interviews with around 100 workers in the U.S. as part of what they’re calling the “Just Transition Listening Project.” The results are expected to be published in March by the Labor Network for Sustainability, and could serve as a starting point.

In the meantime, Cha says lawmakers might consult and involve — if not directly employ, as Biven might suggest — fossil fuel workers in drafting climate policy and green jobs programs. “Then when you introduce a bill, you already have a constituency interested because they’ve been integral in development, so you don’t have to go build [political] support.”

*Name has been changed. He requested Truthout use a pseudonym for fear of retribution from his current employer, a midstream natural gas company.