U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski had tough words recently for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on the subject of "legacy wells" drilled by the federal government on the North Slope. During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Feb. 28 on the Interior Department budget, Murkowski said the government was doing too little to properly plug and clean up the old well sites.
The federal government drilled dozens of exploratory wells decades ago and now most of them "sit without attention," falling into the landscape, Murkowski, the committee's top-ranking Republican, said.
"It's an environmental scar. And we in Alaska kind of feel that this is a double standard," she told Salazar. "The private sector is held to the highest environmental standard and yet the government is saying, well, we can maybe get to one or two (wells) a year. And I understand that these are budget priority issues but I think we need to figure out how we make them a priority."
The legacy wells are in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a vast federal tract west of the central North Slope oil fields. The Navy, the U.S. Geological Survey and their contractor, Husky Oil, drilled more than 135 wells and "core holes" between 1944 and 1982.
An Interior agency, the Bureau of Land Management, is now responsible for NPR-A and the old wells. BLM says the wells range from 100 to 20,335 feet deep.
The agency has spent considerable sums to properly reclaim a handful of legacy well sites, especially those threatened by extreme coastal erosion. But Alaska officials, including members of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, have been dissatisfied with BLM's progress in addressing the issue.
Alaska legislators are considering a resolution urging BLM "to plug legacy wells properly and to reclaim the legacy well sites as soon as possible in order to protect the environment in the Arctic region."
The resolution's primary sponsor, Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, has called BLM's handling of the legacy wells a disgrace, saying private companies would be heavily fined for leaving behind unplugged wells and junk-strewn drill sites.
The resolution could soon reach the House floor for a vote. Thirty-four representatives from both parties have signed on as co-sponsors.
Murkowski told Salazar that during her recent address to the Alaska Legislature, one of the first questions that came up concerned the legacy wells. "And I said, 'We need to raise a little hell. We need to point out that there cannot be a double standard here," Murkowski said.
Interior Department officials have indicated that only about one legacy well a year can be reclaimed, meaning it would take more than 100 years to reclaim them all, Murkowski said. She suggested that wasn't good enough.
"I need to have an action plan for the people of the state of Alaska on this," Murkowski told Salazar.
Petroleum News took Murkowski's remarks from video clips she posted on her website. The hearing covered many issues and the brief clips don't show any reply from Salazar on the legacy well issue.
Asked to comment on what Murkowski said, BLM Alaska spokeswoman Artealia Gilliard replied by email: "The BLM continues to monitor the environmental risk from legacy wells on federal land on Alaska's North Slope, and is working with the State of Alaska and the AOGCC to update plans to prioritize and remediate additional legacy well sites."
BLM officials have said they don't believe many of the wells pose any imminent threat to people or the environment. They also note the high cost to plug, abandon and reclaim the remote wells.