There's a spot about 15 miles southeast of Barrow where a battered, red-painted wood building provides weary snowmobilers with a place to rest and warm up during their travels over the North Slope tundra. Unfortunately, that old building stands over an abandoned oil well that was drilled in 1975 and never properly capped. Now it's leaking methane.
"God forbid somebody should get in there and take shelter and light a cigarette," said Cathy Foerster, the petroleum engineer who heads the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and who has made it a personal mission to ensure that somebody cleans up the old wells drilled in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
The Iko Bay No. 1 Well southeast of Barrow is one of 136 "legacy wells" drilled between 1944 and 1982 by various government agencies, beginning with the U.S. Navy. They range from benign soil-sampling cores to still-oozing, improperly capped wells with hazards below and above the ground. The sites are scattered from the Arctic coastline to the foothills of the Brooks Range, across the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a land unit that occupies most of the western North Slope and that, despite its name, has yet to produce any oil for commercial use.
The old wells tell an Alaska story about the rocky beginnings of the North Slope oil business. They are, as far as officials know, the oldest oil and gas wells ever drilled in the Arctic.
They also tell a more common story about contamination in the circumpolar north, from old oil operations, military activities or mines.
A new plan for cleanup
After at least eight years of prodding by officials in Alaska, including Foerster and the AOGCC and leaders of the North Slope Borough, the Bureau of Land Management has settled on a plan to clean up 16 of the wells in the near future and has secured $50 million to do so. President Obama on Oct. 2 signed the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, passed by Congress in September during a fleeting moment of consensus before the 16-day federal government shutdown. The act mainly concerns a phase-out plan of the federal helium reserve in Texas, but other provisions were added, including money for legacy-well cleanups.
Several wells were closed in the past, starting with a Navy well-plugging in 1952, but with sometimes-primitive methods. Some were plugged without now-standard procedures to ensure that cement poured in actually created a seal, Foerster said. Some were filled with cement while pipes and other materials were still inside, she said. Shortcomings in well-sealing became evident about a decade ago, when a snowmobiler traveling by one well found oil leaking out of the surface, she said.
More recent cleanups, guided in part by a 2004 BLM inventory, were effective but expensive, at up to $18.7 million a well. Those cleanups targeted wells drilled by the U.S. Geologic Survey after the mid-1970s, when the oil-field technology involved large pads and large reserve pits filled with waste that is now highly expensive to cart away and dispose of properly, said Rob Brumbaugh, a BLM minerals specialist who has been working on the legacy-well problems since the 1990s.
What is new in the final plan released by BLM on Sept. 23 is the strategy for getting through the remaining problem wells as quickly and efficiency as possible.
The agency is seeking to hire contractors to knock out up to 10 well cleanups in the first year, and to finish six more within five years. The next 34 wells will be addressed in another plan expected to come out then, Brumbaugh said.
Work is expected to start next by summer with some surface cleanups, he said. There had been hopes to start below-ground cleanups this winter, but that is likely to happen next winter instead, he said. Opportunities for hiring qualified contractors not already committed to other North Slope jobs are closing, given the late season and extra delays caused by the shutdown.
The long history of legacy wells
The legacy wells saga goes back to 1923, when President Warren Harding created the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4, one of four such land units to be managed by the Navy to provide oil and gas to the nation's military forces.
The largest single chunk of federal land in the United States, it was renamed in 1976 as the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and transferred to the Interior Department. It has been managed as a hybrid -- a place where both oil exploration and wildlife preservation are promoted.
Little in the way of petroleum activity occurred until the 1940s, when the Navy drilled the first wells in Barrow. Government drilling did eventually result in development of the Barrow Gas Field, which supplies the nation's northernmost community with natural gas, but no commercial oil production.
Official agency records of the decades-ago drilling operations show practices that are cringe-inducing by modern standards. Operators sometimes prepared sites for drilling by scraping off all the delicate tundra plants, or even thick layers of active permafrost, only to find that the thaw continued and equipment sank into sagging ground. Tools and other items fell into the drill holes, becoming what is known in oil parlance as "fish," and many were not retrieved. At one site, drilled in 1950, a tractor clearing snow broke a gas pipeline, and the released gas ignited and blew up a well house.
Alaska politicians have seized on the outdated techniques and poor condition of legacy wells as chance to bash the federal government for what they say is a laxer environmental standard than would be used for private-sector drilling. A resolution passed unanimously in the legislature this year called the sites "travesty wells," saying that term better expresses "the long history of negligence and hypocrisy on the part of the federal government, especially the United States Bureau of Land Management, for failing to live up to its mission statement by properly plugging and remediating the well sites."
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who ultimately secured the funding for the cleanup, routinely used hearings and press events to scold federal officials for lapses. She and State Rep. Charisse Millett, the Anchorage Republican who sponsored the legislature's resolution, used words like "disgrace" and "outrage" when talking about the wells. "This goes way beyond our borders because all Americans should be outraged that this environmental crime has been allowed to go on this long," Millett said last March, in one of numerous press releases and other statements about the issue.
Now, with a new cleanup plan and the money to accomplish it in hand, Brumbaugh laughed when asked about being likened to an environmental criminal. Still, Alaska officials' harsh language and drumbeat for action brought results, he said.
"It definitely helped us in terms of getting additional funding. They were able to elevate it up the scale," he said. And it inspired a creative solution -- the use of proceeds from helium sales for cleanup, which "is something that wouldn't have been thought of in the past," he said.
Brumbaugh has been to every legacy well, including the most remote sites, like Awuna No. 1, 151 miles south of Barrow and accessible only by helicopter.
Variety of problems, complicated cleanup
Each well has its own story.
At Iko Bay No. 1, a red-painted wooden structure is still standing, though punctured and weather-beaten. There is a cement plug, but it lies below the oil and gas layers -- not in a place to do much good, Foerster said. Methane is leaking from a cracked wellhead. With all its problems, the well is considered to pose high risks above and below ground, according to BLM analysis, and is the top priority for cleanup.
The Topagoruk Well Test Well No. 1 was drilled in 1952, before officials fully understood the fragility of the tundra or the dynamics of permafrost. The foundation for the well was created with timber planks "set on ground scraped free of tundra vegetation," according to the Interior Department drilling report published for the Navy in 1958. During drilling, operators noticed that their equipment was sagging into the thawing permafrost, and they responded by propping it up with more pieces of timber. There are remnants of a rig that burned at a nearby well. The debris at the site -- including battery cores -- poses high surface risks, according to the BLM.
The J.W. Dalton well, 120 miles northwest of Prudhoe Bay, was drilled by the USGS in 1979 and later converted by that agency into a permafrost-monitoring site. The problem? It was drilled on what has become one of the most rapidly eroding stretches of North Slope coastline. The well was originally 1,500 feet away from the shore, but by 2004, the waves were starting to hit it, according to the BLM's documents.
The possibility that the well could fall into the Arctic Ocean, old waste pit and all, spurred an intensive cleanup and sealing operation in the spring of 2005. The Beaufort Sea had edged so close that, during the plugging, salty seawater rushed in and displaced 10,000 gallons of the diesel that was used for freeze protection, according to BLM reports.
That cleanup project cost $8.9 million, won a Department of Interior environmental award and was completed in the nick of time. The well is now underwater, hundreds of feet offshore.
Like the J.W. Dalton well before erosion overtook it, some legacy wells still serve a useful non-oil purpose. The BLM lists 18 sites that are being used by the USGS to monitor permafrost changes; those wells, the BLM has concluded, need no more action.
Foerster disagrees that all of those wells can be left in as-is condition. She cites surface junk, some of which could entrap animals or hurt people. But that is a fight for another day, she said.
Overall, she is treating the breakthrough in funding and cleanup planning as a victory for the AOGCC and the state.
"We just want to make sure that 100 years from now people don't say, 'That stupid Cathy Foerster. Why didn't she make sure things were safe so my kids didn't get blown up?'" she said.
Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com