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Sens. Murkowski and Hoeven to press for changes in polluted petroleum reserve

Alex DeMarban
An abandoned exploratory oil well in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. The state is pressuring the Federal Government to clean up the decades-old site.
Alaska Oil and Gas Commission photo
Surface oil from an abandoned exploratory well in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. The state is pressuring the Federal Government to clean up the decades-old site.
Alaska Oil and Gas Commission photo
An abandoned exploratory oil well in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. The state is pressuring the Federal Government to clean up the decades-old site.
Alaska Oil and Gas Commission photo
An abandoned exploratory oil well site in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. The state is pressuring the Federal Government to clean up the decades-old site.
Alaska Oil and Gas Commission photo
An abandoned exploratory oil well in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. The state is pressuring the Federal Government to clean up the decades-old site.
Alaska Oil and Gas Commission photo
An abandoned exploratory oil well in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. The state is pressuring the Federal Government to clean up the decades-old site.
Alaska Oil and Gas Commission photo

A pair of Republican senators from oil-dependent states got an eye-opening look at fields old and new across Alaska’s North Slope, the nation’s largest oil patch.

In a wide-ranging helicopter tour that included two whaling captains as passengers, the pair toured the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and looked at oilfield pollution left by the federal government itself.

At a private terminal near the Anchorage airport on Sunday night, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. John Hoeven were dressed down in blue jeans after stepping off a U.S. Coast Guard jet following their weekend trip to the Far North.

Murkowski was especially fired up. She'd never seen the messy legacy wells left behind from decades of drilling paid for by the federal government as it explored the 23-million acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate's energy committee, and Hoeven, the former governor of North Dakota who helped the state become a dominant oil-booming province, have both introduced energy legislation that would tap into Alaska's oil potential while ramping up domestic energy production. 

Their excursion came as Shell Oil prepares to launch exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean in the coming days or weeks, in regions untouched by exploration for more than 15 years.

The oil giant's plans, still not approved by federal regulators, have renewed national interest in the Arctic. Environmentalists fear a large discovery could spark a boom in the pristine region, where the U.S. Coast Guard and the state of Alaska have virtually no capability to help respond to a spill.

Alaska will also host other federal officials in the coming weeks. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, will participate in a hearing on the Coast Guard presence in Alaska set for Kodiak on Monday. Following her this weekend will be Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who plans to head to the Arctic, Murkowski said. He's twice been to Barrow -- the nation's northernmost community on the edge of the Arctic Ocean -- and hopes to return to learn more about Shell Oil's efforts. Salazar, who must issue the final well permits before Shell can drill, also hopes to visit some of the legacy wells Murkowski wants cleaned up, she said. 

The federal government drilled dozens of those wells after President Harding established the reserve in 1923 -- where no commercial production has ever occurred. But the Bureau of Land Management has only just begun a clean-up effort at a pace that could take decades and tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, equipment rusts away and oil leaks endanger animals, creating an environmental hazard private oil exploration efforts could never get away with, Murkowski said.  

One well the tour visited enraged Murkowski. She scribbled down the coordinates on the back of the helicopter pilot's business card. She's planning to pass those onto Salazar so he can see the mess for himself, the cleanup of which falls ultimately under his authority.

"I came away from that three-hour trip really ticked off," she said.

At that site, caribou tracks circled a pool of oily water and a rusty well pipe and valves poked from the middle. Old drums lay strewn about. Vegetation was growing over the thick rubber track from an old tundra vehicle.

The whaling captains riding along in the North Slope Borough's helicopter, Jake Adams and Mike Aamodt, said it was unclear if the oil was leaking from the old well beneath the slick or was from natural seepage, Murkowski said. At any rate, birds and other animals are sometimes found dead in such pools on the North Slope, they said.

In addition to tipping off Salazar about the well she visited, Murkowski plans to find ways within the Bureau of Land Management's budget to help them prioritize their funding. Agency officials have said they are cleaning up the mess as much they can, but don't have much money for the cleanup. 

The trip to the legacy wells in the nation's petroleum reserve came on Sunday, the day after the two senators had visited the Alpine oil field operated by ConocoPhillips.

The standards for private companies on those lands are so strict that ConocoPhillips has to send out a water vacuum truck to suck water off the gravel drill pad after every rainfall. The water must then be treated before it can be released back to the environment.

The oil companies can't even leave a gum wrapper on the tundra, Murkowski said. Meanwhile, the federal government apparently has its own rules.

"If you're the federal government, it's apparently just a wink and a nod and somehow the mess is no longer there," she said.

Hoeven said he, Murkowski and other senators have introduced 13 energy bills that, if passed, could in a handful of years sharply reduce U.S. dependence on oil imported from overseas.

Ideas include setting timelines for regulatory agencies, so permit reviews aren't dragged out. They also include facilitators within the federal government to help oil companies negotiate the thicket of rules.

At one field, ConocoPhillips needed four years to receive a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to begin building for a critical bridge on federal lands, allowing that development to move ahead earlier this year. Those delays shouldn't be happening in an economy that needs jobs, he said.  

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex@alaskadispatch.com