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Feds making leaky Alaska oil wells monuments to avoid clean-up? No, says BLM.

Pat Forgey
One of the abandoned oil wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Alaska Oil and Gas Commission photo

Federal land on Alaska's North Slope is dotted with abandoned, decades-old wells, some of them leaking oil and gas into the environment.

Now, according to Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, who has made cleanup of wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska a personal mission, the Bureau of Land Management is seeking to get the wells named National Historic Monuments to avoid the cleanup responsibility. 

"They're putting out that they're going to be historical sites," Millett said on the House Floor. 

"I'm offended that that's the route they're taking, I think they're derelict in their duty."

The House of Representatives this week unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by Millett urging the wells to be cleaned up "as soon as possible."

Since 1944, the federal government has drilled 137 wells in Alaska looking for oil. Only 17 were formally plugged. Some of the remaining 120 pose no threat, but others are sitting in puddles of oil and debris, according to a 2004 BLM legacy well report. 

Not happening

On a visit to the Alaska Legislature this week, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich called a historic preservation strategy as outlined by Millett "outrageous," but then he qualified that comment. "If that's happening, that's totally unacceptable," he said. 

BLM says that's not happening. 

Alaska spokesperson Erin Curtis called Millett's statements about seeking historic status "not accurate."

For sites that more than 50 years old, the agency is required to review them to determine whether they're eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite Millett's claims, Curtis said the BLM is not seeking to have them named historic sites, she said.

Listing will be up to the state's historic preservation officer, she said. 

"Even if a site is determined to be eligible for the National Register, that doesn't preclude us from being able to complete our cleanup plans," Curtis said.

Curtis said the miscommunication appears to stem from an "inartfully worded" footnote on a draft cleanup plan that was sent to state agencies for review.

One of those agencies was the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is responsible for seeing that unused wells are properly decommissioned and is an agency that has been jousting with the federal government over its old wells. Commission Chairwoman Cathy Foerster said she was encouraged to hear that BLM wasn't trying to avoid a cleanup. 

"If that's not their plan, that's great, she said. 

Bad as Exxon Valdez?

A draft BLM report on legacy-well cleanup seems to suggest that wells eligible for historic status would not be cleaned up, she said. Curtis said that language will be changed in the final report, clarifying that BLM will clean up all the sites.

She said that in the last 10 years BLM has cleaned up 18 sites, plugging wells, removing debris and spending $86 million. 

The controversy has cast light upon the legacy well issue, which Millett and a handful of state officials have been trying to resolve. Millett said the federal government has received $9.4 billion in lease payments from oil companies seeking to drill in federal lands or waters, and should be spending more of it on cleanup. 

The legacy well issue is equivalent to the Exxon Valdez or BP's Gulf of Mexico spills, she said. "This rises to that level," Millett said, and had Exxon Mobil done it, it would be on every newspaper front page.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com