JUNEAU -- The U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a plan Wednesday identifying 50 abandoned wells in the Alaska arctic that it believes require clean-up by the agency.
The draft plan prioritizes the remediation of the first 16 of those sites in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, at least one of which is near a well-traveled winter road and has a gas leak that the agency says could pose a threat to public health and safety. The plan anticipates surface work to begin as early as this year, with clean-up of drums submerged in oil seeps and other debris around several sites.
BLM-Alaska spokeswoman Erin Curtis said the well work could begin next year and span three years, assuming the necessary funding is secured and everything else goes according to plan. The near-term focus will be on the Barrow area.
BLM Alaska State Director Bud Cribley said in a statement that the draft plan "lays out an aggressive strategy to address some of the highest priority wells."
It's not clear how much the work will cost. BLM-Alaska said it has secured about $86 million to plug 18 legacy wells since 2002.
BLM manages the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, where more than 130 wells were drilled under the federal government's direction as part of an exploratory oil and gas program from the 1940s to the 1980s. State leaders have been pushing for progress on the clean-up — the Legislature has twice passed resolutions to that effect — and insisting it is a federal responsibility.
President Barack Obama, in his budget plan, proposed shifting revenue-sharing payments to Alaska from oil and gas development in the reserve to a new fund to help with the cost of BLM projects including clean-up of the so-called "legacy well" sites. Members of Alaska's congressional delegation and Gov. Sean Parnell have rejected the idea, with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Tuesday calling it "dead on arrival."
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell acknowledged the wells are a problem but said in a tight budget environment Alaska's share of revenue from development seemed a reasonable source to help address the issue. If that option isn't acceptable, she told Murkowski on Tuesday that the two sides need to work together on an alternative.
Murkowski, in a release Wednesday, called the draft plan a positive step but said she was concerned BLM "agency appears to have unilaterally decided that more than half of the wells don't require remediation. That's not the federal government's decision to make - that's up to the state of Alaska."
Besides the 50 sites identified by BLM for additional work, the agency said 18 sites are currently used by the U.S. Geological Survey and 68 others do not need additional action. The 68 include wells that have been previously remediated by a federal agency, conveyed to the North Slope Borough and shallow test boreholes that pose no surface or subsurface risks, according to the draft plan.
Affected parties, including the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or AOGCC, will be asked to comment on the plan before it is finalized, Curtis said, adding that the goal is to finalize the plan in the coming weeks.
The two sides in the past have differed on which wells are problems and which are properly plugged.
Cathy Foerster, an AOGCC commissioner, said she wanted to review the wells listed in the report in greater detail but said the highest priorities identified by BLM are in line with those of the commission.
Foerster, who has been an outspoken critic of BLM's handling of the legacy well issue, said it appeared BLM had incorporated into its plan many of the concerns raised by the commission. She said she was encouraged by that.
She said she would like to see documentation on the 18 USGS wells, though, to make sure they're truly being used and that their integrity is intact.
"We may never agree 100 percent on the wells but if we're getting closer, if we're agreeing on the highest priority issues and we're working collaboratively, then we're moving in the right direction," she said.