Alaskans should demand that BLM clean up festering oil wells

Charisse Millett

“It is the mission of the Bureau of Land Management to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations,” -- Bureau of Land Management Mission Statement

There are more than a hundred abandoned petroleum drill sites in northern Alaska that have not been plugged or cleaned up. The perpetrator responsible for the wells has done almost nothing to properly secure them or protect the surrounding tundra.

A private oil and gas company is not responsible for this environmental crime. The perpetrator is none other than the federal agency with the mission statement promising to protect Alaska’s land, air, water and wildlife -- the Bureau of Land Management.

The story begins during the final months of World War II. The federal government realized northern Alaska’s potential to be a world class oil and gas basin and launched a drilling program in 1944. When drilling stopped in 1982, 136 wells, commonly known as "Legacy Wells," were sunk into the tundra. Since then only seven have been properly capped and cleaned up in accordance with state regulations. Three wells can no longer be found.

The abandoned wells are open, unplugged, oftentimes full of diesel fuel, and threaten to pollute the ground water and poison land and sea mammals, birds, fish and kill ground vegetation. Trash, rusting fuel drums, abandoned buildings, and scrap metal litter the sites.

I have met with officials from BLM and the U.S. Department of the Interior and was essentially brushed off. We have offered some creative solutions, and all of them were ignored.

BLM plans to plug one well a year. At that rate it will take more than 100 years to restore the sites.

When I asked BLM to do more than one a year, agency officials turn their pockets inside out and plead poverty. Those same BLM officials fail to mention the nine billion dollars from petroleum lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and Alaska’s outer continental shelf that have poured into federal coffers.

If a private exploration company drilled a well and abandoned it without cleaning it up, there would be a public outcry from the news media and environmental community. State fines would total about eight billion dollars for similar crimes and without a statute of limitations the penalties could total 40 billion.

Meanwhile, the federal government has done all it can to stall responsible development of Alaska’s vast untapped energy resources in NPR-A and Alaska’s outer continental shelf. Energy resources our country needs to power the economy and continue down the path of economic recovery. The hypocrisy here is unbelievable.

This session I introduced a resolution (HJR 29) demanding BLM stop ignoring the problem, sit down with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on a real plan to plug the wells, and draft its budget so it has the money to pay for the cleanup in a reasonable amount of time before any more environmental damage occurs. Alaska deserves an action plan.

All 39 of my colleagues in the Alaska House of Representatives co-sponsored the resolution and passed it unanimously. An environmental umbrella group and many resource development organizations endorse the resolution.

Senator Lisa Murkowski grilled Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a recent congressional budget hearing demanding to know why his agency is failing to do its job of protecting public lands in Alaska. Senator Murkowski has vowed to make the Interior Department clean up the Legacy Wells and we should all thank her for that.

Alaskans need to speak out and let the federal government, which owns 60 percent of our state, know that neglectful management will not be tolerated. Contact the U.S. Interior Department and the BLM today and demand they get busy and clean up the Legacy Wells immediately.

We are all responsible for protecting public lands. If Alaskans come together and demand action now, we stop this environmental travesty before any more damage is done to the Arctic.

Charisse Millett is a member of the Alaska House of Representatives. As a Republican she has served House District 30 in Anchorage since 2009.

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