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Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Corner: A bipartisan infrastructure bill

On Nov. 15 President Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. In August the U.S. Senate had passed the bill with 19 Republicans voting for it, and on Nov. 6 the House of Representatives passed it with several Republicans offering their support. Among those House Republicans was Rep. David McKinley, R-WV-1. Kudos to Mr. McKinley for his expression of support for the interests of the people of West Virginia above the preference of the majority of his political party.

There are several features of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that are related to addressing the time-urgent issue of climate change and associated environmental issues which impact the Mid-Ohio Valley: there is $8 billion for prevention of flooding risks — a growing threat when extreme weather events visit the hills and hollows of West Virginia; abandoned mine land clean up and water restoration–a pressing problem as coal diminishes in its value as an affordable source of energy — will receive $2.2 billion; there is $65 billion to expand broadband access, much of which will benefit the rural areas of our region; another $50 billion is allocated to clean water and removing lead from municipal water pipes; there is $27.5 billion designated for bridge repair and replacement, and $1 billion for Great Lakes restoration.

A notable feature of the bill for our region is $4.7 billion allocated for orphaned oil and gas well sites including plugging, remediation, and restoration. It is estimated that it costs $33,000 per abandoned well just to plug and $76,000 for surface restoration (Energy News Network, May 20, 2021). These wells are capable of emitting methane, which produces 84 times the greenhouse gas emissions as carbon dioxide and accounts for 20 percent of the world’s GHG emissions.

The amount allocated to this problem in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will in no way solve the entire problem of abandoned wells, but it will take an important step forward in capping 81,000 abandoned wells. In the Ohio Valley region alone, comprised of the states of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, it is estimated that it will cost $25 billion-$34 billion to address the entire issue of abandoned wells (Ohio River Valley Institute, 2021). Just in the state of Ohio there are 183,090 abandoned oil and gas wells (ORVI, 2021). There is also a salutary effect on job creation associated with these efforts at plugging oil and gas wells and restoring land and water associated with this equipment; there can be as many as 120.000 jobs created by this enterprise in the U.S. (Forbes, 2020) and over 30,000 just in the Ohio River Valley (ORVI, 2021).

A deeper dive into the details of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill reveals some other features of the bill that can benefit our region. These include the Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program to support projects that enhance tourism and economic development in rural areas and ecosystem restoration in federal lands, which include, in West Virginia, the Appalachian Trail, New River Gorge and Ohio River Islands. Many of the projects supported by the bill that relate to highway and bridge development acknowledge environmental concerns, such as arranging for efficient storm run off in culverts, improving habitat of aquatic species, and facilitating fish passage. Invasive-plant elimination along rights of way is targeted as a way to support native plants species while building much-needed transportation infrastructure.

The bill identifies some specific geographic projects in areas like the Columbia River Basin in the northwest, the Colorado River Basin in the southwest, and the Chesapeake Bay on the east coast. While these regions might need special attention for infrastructure development, we in Appalachia have long been neglected when it comes to major federal investment. As the group ReImagine Appalachia has pointed out, it is well passed time for the Ohio River region, much of which includes Appalachia, to get its fair share of federal dollars so that it can envision a new economy, which is less based on extractive industries and more based on manufacturing and development of renewable energy resources. I urge readers to press our federal legislators to ensure that Appalachia gets its share of the benefits of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and other federal investments in a new economy.

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George Banziger, Ph..D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. Now retired, he is a volunteer for the Mid-Ohio Valley Interfaith, and Harvest of Hope. He is a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, Citizens Climate Lobby, and of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action team.

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