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State of Alaska blames Feds for unplugged Arctic oil wells

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
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
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

Conservationists, take note. The fragile Arctic tundra is littered with rusting oil drums, corroding pipes that poke from brackish pools of water, and unplugged wells that spew gas into the atmosphere.

But the perpetrator of this environmental disaster is apparently above state law because it's the federal government, says Commissioner Cathy Foerster with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The harsh accusation was one of several leveled at the Bureau of Land Management, the caretaker of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, during a congressional hearing on Thursday.

For four decades during the Cold War era, the feds drilled 136 wells in the Indiana-sized reserve at the top of Alaska. They were trying to assess oil and gas potential in the reserve, a military oil cache created by presidential order after World War I.

The reserve might as well be the Wild West of drilling. But it's not the private companies running amok. Those operators would have been forced to clean their mess -- the state gives them one year to properly plug and clean up abandoned wells, said Foerster. It should be so clean that after a few summers, the former industrial site should blend in completely with the environment.

But the bureau has long escaped any such requirement. Over the decades, only 16 of the wells have been properly remediated -- at least by the state's high standards -- leaving another 120 to be dealt with, she said.

Foerster and other Alaskans took the bureau to task before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday morning. Joining in were state Rep. Charisse Millett and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the committee. They used terms such as “hypocrisy,” “embarrassing," “pathetic” and "crimes against the environment" to describe the bureau's slow response.

The federal government wants developers to follow the law, but it turns a blind eye to its own environmental disaster, said Millett. The out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality has got to stop.

According to Foerster, the mess includes 26 wells that are open to the atmosphere with drilling fluids left in them. The wells encountered oil and gas and likely caused significant contamination, she said.

The Bureau of Land Management believes many of the wells are not a threat to the environment, but has provided no proof to back up its claim, she said. The bureau's Alaska director, Bud Cribley, acknowledged during questioning from Murkowski that the bureau doesn't know the characteristics of each well.

The bureau has spent $85 million to remediate 18 wells since 2002, Cribley said, including some that were in danger of falling into the Arctic Ocean because of coastal erosion. Further efforts have been hampered by limited funding.

As a next step, the bureau plans to develop a strategy to remediate another 13 during the next three years. It will work with the commission and Native groups to prioritize the wells, he said. It also plans to clean up three wells in or near Iko Bay southeast of Barrow, pending the arrival of more funding.

That's not enough, said Foerster and others, who called the wells "environmental ticking time bombs." During a remediation effort last year at a well more than 150 miles southeast of Barrow, a crew temporarily lost control of a well, a situation that luckily did not result in a blowout.

The mess, according to Foerster, includes:

  • 49 wells with pipes sticking from the ground
  • 44 with wood, metal, plastic, glass and other debris littering the site.
  • 2 wells leaking greenhouse gases
  • 17 filled with diesel fuel
  • 3 that have gone missing. One of those was swamped by a landslide along the Colville River. Two are now under lakes, making them potential sources of groundwater contamination.
  • 10 have open cellars, creating a "trap-door" hazard for travelers.

Murkowski and Millett blasted the feds for spending very little on the cleanup while holding lease sales offshore and in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that brought in more than $9 billion.

"We've been helping you out in Alaska in considerable ways, and you're walking away from the responsibility, and we're not going to allow that," Murkowski said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com