WATFORD CITY, N.D. - It's rare for Tom Brooks to say no to work. Which is why, in the middle of a pandemic and a worldwide slump in oil prices, Brooks mustered up a crew to plug a 42-year-old oil well for the state of North Dakota.
"We fought our way through the slow times and didn't shut the doors," Brooks said one afternoon this summer as he drove his pickup toward the well in question, tucked amid tan buttes in the scenic grasslands near the Montana state line. "We didn't plan it that way. We were just too stupid to quit."
Now, what's helping keep Brooks and other oilfield service companies in business - just barely - is North Dakota's $66 million stimulus program to plug 239 abandoned oil wells and to reclaim 2,000 acres of land, including those damaged by past oil and brine spills.
States with an inventory of abandoned wells have long clamored for federal funding to help with such cleanups, but North Dakota may be the only one to devote pandemic relief money to plugging them. The state is spending a portion of its $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding to speed up its existing cleanup program.
Abandoned wells can contaminate groundwater, emit volatile compounds hazardous to human health and the environment, and leak methane that contributes to climate change. Spills can contaminate farmland, of particular concern in North Dakota, where the first producing oil well was drilled in a wheat field.
Old wells and contaminated sites "represent a serious threat to the environment, the public health and safety," Lynn Helms, the director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, told the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee this summer.
Not everyone in the state is thrilled the governor and legislature chose to use CARES Act money to plug wells.
North Dakota was not a coronavirus hot spot in the early days of the pandemic, but cases have spiked in recent weeks, particularly in counties with large universities. Cases grew 22% since Labor Day, and North Dakota leads the nation in per capita positive tests.
The state has not mandated mask use in workplaces, and their use in the oil fields is almost nonexistent. Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House, visited in late August and urged more widespread mask use. "It's important for us to wear masks to protect each other," she said.
There's also irritation that taxpayers are on the hook for the cleanup, not the oil companies that caused the mess. "Using coronavirus relief aid to plug abandoned oil wells is questionable," the Bismarck Tribune wrote in an editorial. "The responsibility for restoring abandoned well sites should lie with the companies that own them."