Conservationists, take note. The fragile Arctic tundra is littered with rusting oil drums, corroding pipes that poke from brackish pools of water, and unplugged wells that spew gas into the atmosphere.
But the perpetrator of this environmental disaster is apparently above state law because it's the federal government, says Commissioner Cathy Foerster with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
The harsh accusation was one of several leveled at the Bureau of Land Management, the caretaker of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, during a congressional hearing on Thursday.
For four decades during the Cold War era, the feds drilled 136 wells in the Indiana-sized reserve at the top of Alaska. They were trying to assess oil and gas potential in the reserve, a military oil cache created by presidential order after World War I.
The reserve might as well be the Wild West of drilling. But it's not the private companies running amok. Those operators would have been forced to clean their mess -- the state gives them one year to properly plug and clean up abandoned wells, said Foerster. It should be so clean that after a few summers, the former industrial site should blend in completely with the environment.
But the bureau has long escaped any such requirement. Over the decades, only 16 of the wells have been properly remediated -- at least by the state's high standards -- leaving another 120 to be dealt with, she said.
Foerster and other Alaskans took the bureau to task before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday morning. Joining in were state Rep. Charisse Millett and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the committee. They used terms such as "hypocrisy," "embarrassing," "pathetic" and "crimes against the environment" to describe the bureau's slow response.
The federal government wants developers to follow the law, but it turns a blind eye to its own environmental disaster, said Millett. The out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality has got to stop.