Can ravaged economies be healed with a restoration industry?

Cleaning up the West could be as lucrative as wrecking it.

On a blazing mid-June day, Don Schreiber stands on a plateau on the edge of northwestern New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. The landscape is spare and spectacular — like a giant cathedral, Schreiber says — offering views of Tse Bit’a’i (Shiprock) and the Carrizo Mountains. 

Yet this hallowed place is blighted, invaded nearly seven decades ago by oil companies and drill rigs. Roads slice haphazardly across the khaki earth to motionless pumpjacks littered with tumbleweeds. PVC and steel pipes snake over sandstone, connecting to clusters of fittings and valves. 

The Horseshoe Gallup oil field is home to several hundred oil and gas wells, many suffering from “orphaned/non-orphaned well syndrome”: They’re defunct and the owners are bankrupt, but regulators still consider them active, so cleanup can be delayed indefinitely. 


“It’s like someone went into a church and vandalized it,” Schreiber, a local rancher and industry watchdog, said. Robyn Jackson (Diné) of Diné CARE agrees: “This place may not be pristine or lush. But for our people, it is sacred. It has significance. I’m disturbed by industry being allowed to do whatever it wants.”

But where there’s desecration, there’s also opportunity: Both land and economy could be restored by employing displaced fossil fuel workers to help clean up the mess. 

“This place may not be pristine or lush. But for our people, it is sacred. It has significance. I’m disturbed by industry being allowed to do whatever it wants.”

Once, the extractive industry helped fuel the local economy. Now it’s abandoning the region after profiting off it for decades, leaving behind a broken landscape, decaying detritus, displaced workers, empty government coffers and an economic void. 

Economic development officials have tried to fill that void with tourism, but recreation and clean energy are no substitute for high-paying drill rig or mining jobs. Now, there’s a movement to create a new industry, one that employs displaced roughnecks and miners and loggers to clean up their ex-employers’ messes and repair the landscape. 

New Mexico, for example, working with the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, hopes to build an industry around cleaning up more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines, many of them on the Navajo Nation. Megan Milliken Biven, a former analyst for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, is leading a campaign to establish a federal Abandoned Well Administration to deal with the millions of old oil and gas wells — including those in the Horseshoe Gallup field — that are leaking methane and other hydrocarbons and potentially contaminating groundwater. And last year’s federal infrastructure bill could jump-start this restoration economy by allocating over $20 billion for cleaning up old wells and abandoned hardrock and coal mines. 

But money and a desire to do better do not alone create a restoration economy. Regulators must decommission long-idled wells and mines, inventory orphaned and abandoned facilities, and direct taxpayer funds without letting industry off the hook. Cleanup programs must be designed to actually heal the land and communities, not benefit the companies that did the damage in the first place.   


SOURCES: Resources for the Future, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Decommissioning Orphaned and Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells: New Estimates and Cost Drivers, by Daniel Raimi et al; Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission; National Wildlife Federation; Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Department;; UNM Bureau of Business and Economic Research;; Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; Western Organization of Resource Councils.

Illustrations by Fiona Martin/High Country News
Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands.