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We could convert abandoned oil and gas wells into millions of acres of green space

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan proposes to spend $16 billion plugging old oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines. But there’s no authoritative measure of how many of these sites exist across the nation.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I sought to account for every oil and gas well site in the lower 48 states that was eligible for restoration—meaning that the well no longer was producing oil or gas, and there were no other active wells using that site. We found more than 430,000 old well sites, with associated infrastructure such as access roads, storage areas, and fluid tanks. They covered more than 2 million acres—an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

These sites are scattered across the country, concentrated mainly in forests, grassland, and cropland. They could be put to good use. We estimated the value of crops that could be produced if these lands are restored at over $14 billion over the next 50 years.

We calculated that restoring these lands could remove millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere as vegetation regrows on them, providing an estimated $7 billion in benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions. It also would provide habitat for wildlife and could produce timber for harvesting. And because healthy ecosystems filter air and water, returning these lands to a natural state could reduce air pollution and improve drinking water quality.

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