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CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- Wyoming will use federal coronavirus relief funding to help petroleum companies move ahead with oil and gas drilling projects interrupted by the pandemic and plug idle wells.

North Dakota already has been using Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding for well plugging and cleanup. Totaling as much as $81 million, the funding through the two major oil-producing states has qualified support from land stewardship advocates who don't usually side with the petroleum industry.

The pandemic has taken a toll on the once-booming U.S. oil industry, reducing travel and lowering demand for gasoline and jet fuel, proponents said.

"These funds will have a direct impact on Wyoming's employment rate and put people back to work in our oil and gas sector," Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, said in a statement Tuesday announcing up to $15 million in assistance through a new Energy Rebound Program.

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Using the money to plug and clean up abandoned oil and gas wells is a good idea, but subsidizing them to complete oil and gas wells isn't, Bob LeResche with the Powder River Basin Resource Council land stewardship advocacy group said Thursday.

"Let's put oil workers back to work on projects with a public purpose, rather than subsidizing select private companies," LeResche said in an emailed statement.

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act fiscal stimulus gave each state at least $1.25 billion to soften the pandemic's economic effects. States have until the end of 2020 to use the money.

As of late 2019, Wyoming had more than 3,000 "orphan" wells that companies have abandoned without plans to put back into production or plug and clean up, according to an Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission report.

North Dakota, which according to the report had no orphan wells but over 2,000 idle ones, this year allocated $66 million to plug and clean up 380 wells.

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