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Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Today we’re reading about how “zombie” viruses are thawing in melting permafrost, but we shouldn’t panic — yet. 😅

As a scheduling note, this newsletter will only publish three days a week — Tuesday through Thursday — for the next few weeks of Congress’s lame-duck session. We’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday. But first:

Exclusive: With money on the table, states identify 120,000 leak-prone oil wells

Across the country, fossil fuel companies have walked away from thousands of oil and gas wells, leaving them unplugged and idle even as many of these drill sites leak greenhouse gas emissions and pose direct threats to human health. But until recently, states had little incentive to identify these wells and few resources to plug them.

Now, the bipartisan infrastructure law that President Biden signed last year is changing the calculus around this mounting environmental challenge, Maxine reports this morning. The law, which authorized a record $4.7 billion for states’ efforts to plug abandoned wells, has set off a scramble among state officials to document the wells within their borders.

As a result, states have now reported more than 120,000 abandoned wells, marking a nearly 50 percent increase from the 81,000 wells that they reported last year, according to an analysis of state data by researchers at the Environmental Defense Fund and McGill University shared with The Washington Post.

Even this figure may mask the true extent of the problem. By some estimates, the number of undocumented abandoned wells in the United States — those that have yet to be discovered — could be as high as a million.

“It would be wonderful to be able to map all of the true orphan wells in the country, of which there could be a million or more, but we can only map the documented ones by definition,” said Adam Peltz, a director and senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund who worked on the analysis. “It speaks to the principle that this is a big problem. We still have a lot to do to find these wells and bring them under control.”

Abandoned wells — also known as “orphaned” wells because no owner can be found — can leak toxic substances such as arsenic, formaldehyde and benzene, polluting the air and groundwater. Using census data, the analysis found that 14 million people live within a mile of an orphaned well, including 1.3 million adults with asthma. Exposure to air pollution can worsen asthma symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Orphaned wells can also emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes climate change. Responsible for roughly one-third of global warming today, methane traps about 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

Getting grants out the door

In January, the Interior Department announced that states could apply for an initial $1.15 billion in federal grants to fund the closure and cleanup of abandoned wells. The department noted that the grants would be based on three criteria: the number of documented orphaned wells in each state, the estimated cost of cleaning up the wells in each state, and the job losses in each state from March 2020 through November 2021.

“The Department is taking a thoughtful and methodical approach to implementing the orphaned oil and gas well program that aims to get money to states as quickly as possible while being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

In August, Interior awarded an initial $560 million to 24 states to begin plugging and remediating more than 10,000 orphaned wells. Twenty-two states received $25 million each, while Arkansas and Mississippi got $5 million each to measure methane emissions from the wells and begin plugging them.

The researchers at the Environmental Defense Fund and McGill conducted a similar analysis of orphaned wells last year, before the passage of the infrastructure law. This year, they found dramatic increases in documented wells in certain states that updated their databases in response to the federal funding.

Ohio, which received $25 million in federal money, reported the highest number of orphaned wells of any state — 20,439 — in the latest analysis, compared to just 891 wells in last year’s analysis.

Stephanie O’Grady, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said in an email that the department identified the additional wells through a comprehensive review of its records. She added that while the department employs 26 people in its orphan well program, it is searching for more qualified contractors to plug the wells — a challenge for the Biden administration as it seeks to implement the infrastructure law in a way that creates well-paying jobs.

You can read Maxine’s full story, which touches on possible solutions to the nation’s orphan well crisis, here.

Pressure points

Biden says ‘tweaks’ can be made to address ‘glitches’ in Inflation Reduction Act

During a joint news conference on Thursday with French President Emmanuel MacronPresident Biden said there are some “glitches” in the historic climate law, known as the  Inflation Reduction Act, that he signed in August, but he said they can be reconciled, The Washington Post’s Amy B Wang reports. 

He was probably referring to provisions in the bill that aim to shore up domestic manufacturing of green technologies, such as requirements that automakers source battery components for electric vehicles from the United States or countries with which the United States has a free-trade agreement. But the lawmakers who put those provisions in the bill did so purposefully, making it unclear how Biden intends to fix any perceived problems.

“There’s tweaks that we can make,” Biden said. “When I wrote the legislation, I never intended to exclude folks who were cooperating with us. That was not the intention. … My point is, we’re back in business, Europe is back in business, and we’re going to continue to create manufacturing jobs in America, but not at the expense of Europe.”

His acknowledgment comes after Macron on Wednesday warned that the provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $369 billion in aid to U.S. manufacturers, could “fragment the West” by hurting European economies, The Post’s Yasmeen AbutalebToluse Olorunnipa and Rick Noack report. 

Shortly after landing in Washington for the first state visit of the Biden presidency, Macron said some of the law’s provisions “create such differences between the U.S. and Europe that those who work in these industries will simply say to themselves, ‘We no longer make investments on the other side of the ocean.’ ”

Agency alert

EPA proposes overhaul of biofuel standard to boost EVs

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday proposed a sweeping rewrite of the Renewable Fuel Standard that would promote the use of renewable natural gas in electric vehicles, Jennifer A Dlouhy and Kim Chapman report for Bloomberg News. 

Under the proposed biofuel blending standards, the EPA would create a credit for automakers such as Tesla and Ford that is awarded when electricity from certain renewable sources is used to power electric vehicles. The change is meant to provide an additional incentive for automakers to create zero-emission cars, complementing the clean energy provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act. 

The proposal, which is open for public comment, could also help advance the Biden administration’s goal of decarbonizing the transportation sector by increasing the amount of low-carbon biofuel that must be mixed into gasoline and diesel to as much as 22.68 billion gallons as soon as 2025.

On the Hill

Senate panel advances three Energy Dept. nominees

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday voted to advance three Energy Department nominees, sending them to the full Senate for consideration. They include: 

  • David Crane to be undersecretary for infrastructure.
  • Jeff Marootian to be assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy
  • Gene Rodrigues to be an assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability

Ahead of the vote, committee Chairman Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he appreciated Crane’s statement for the record in which he walked back a previous comment that coal had “missed the boat” to decarbonize. 

Manchin, who represents a coal-dependent state, previously called for President Biden to apologize after suggesting last month that the administration would be “shutting these plants down all across America and having wind and solar.”

International climate

E.U. asks members to set Russian oil price cap at $60

The executive body of the European Union on Thursday called for the 27 member nations to approve a price cap on Russian oil at $60 per barrel, according to people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment publicly on the negotiations, Laurence Norman reports for the Wall Street Journal. 

The proposal from the European Commission comes as the West tries to curtail Russia’s oil revenue amid the war in Ukraine while still maintaining a steady and affordable global supply of energy. A $60 cap would set the Kremlin’s crude prices well below the international benchmarks that traded at $88 a barrel on Thursday. 

The deal needs the approval of all member nations to move forward on Monday as planned. But Poland asked for extra time to consider the proposal, Polish and other E.U. officials said. Once the E.U. approves the plan, the Group of Seven industrialized nations and Australia will have the opportunity to sign off on it.

In the atmosphere

Thanks for reading!

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