Murkowski: BLM work on old wells an 'embarrassment'

Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approach to addressing abandoned wells in the Alaska Arctic an “embarrassment” to the federal government.

Her comments on July 12 came during a Senate hearing she requested in Washington, D.C., focused on the cleanup of so-called legacy wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Murkowski, R-Alaska, said it’s the “height of hypocrisy” that the federal government doesn’t live up to the same standards that it holds private industry to in plugging and reclaiming well sites.

Some 136 wells were drilled under the federal government’s direction as part of an exploratory oil and gas program from the 1940s to the 1980s. The wells are managed by the BLM.

BLM-Alaska has been working with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or AOGCC, to prioritize the cleanup of well sites. BLM-Alaska has developed a draft plan for dealing with 13 wells over three seasons, with the acknowledgment that this wouldn’t address all the outstanding wells. A timeline for the start of the work hasn’t been specified. AOGCC still must weigh in.

There is a difference in opinion on which wells are problems and which are properly plugged.

For example, BLM-Alaska State Director Bud Cribley told the committee his agency is actively monitoring 41 well sites. The agency said others have been plugged or transferred from federal ownership; 18, it says, are being managed by the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor climate change. BLM-Alaska is seeking to have 34 sites, which it says are uncased or partially cased boreholes of relatively shallow depth, removed from the legacy well list.

Cathy Foerster, AOGCC’s chairwoman, testified that just 16 of the 136 sites have been properly plugged and abandoned. She said in her written testimony that the BLM has yet to convince AOGCC that the uncased boreholes are not a concern, and that AOGCC has yet to see proof that any wells the geological survey are using are in safe condition.

“As a regulator I am aghast, along with my fellow Alaskans, that the BLM consistently fails to offer a plan to deal with these environmental ticking time bombs,” she said in her written testimony.

Foerster told the committee some of the sites should be considered “crimes against the environment.” She also said the commission is working with BLM-Alaska to find a way forward.

Earlier this year the state Legislature, led by Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, passed a resolution urging the BLM to properly plug and reclaim the well sites as soon as possible, saying they pose “significant risk to surface vegetation, groundwater, fish, land mammals and sea mammals.” The resolution also said wood and metal debris and deteriorating buildings at well sites “litter the landscape and detract from the natural beauty of the Arctic region.”

Millett suggested possible solutions, including taking a portion of the revenues generated from lease sales in the reserve or off Alaska’s shores to plug the wells and clean up the waste. She said legacy wells could be targeted in upcoming lease sales, with the lessee taking over remediation as terms of a lease, or the land could be given to the state and the state could handle cleanup.

A project can cost millions of dollars, largely due to mobilization costs. The reserve is a 23-million acre roadless area 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

BLM-Alaska gets about $1 million a year to manage legacy wells, but a spokeswoman has said the agency has been successful in securing additional funding for priority projects and urgent needs. Since 2002, BLM-Alaska said it has secured $85.9 million to plug 18 legacy wells.

Cribley said the agency was framing its proposed work plan in the context of what it believes is reasonable to request, and secure, for funding. But Murkowski expressed frustration with the pace of progress and said she might have more sympathy if the federal government hadn’t earned more than $9 billion in lease sales in Alaska.

“I don’t buy into this, ‘Oh, poor us. We’ve got tough budget problems,’” Murkowski said. “We’ve been helping you out in Alaska in considerable ways, and you’re walking away from the responsibility, and we’re not going to allow that.”

She said she will do what she can through the appropriations process but said the administration must make this a priority and “make good on its obligations.”

After the hearing, Cribley said the financial investment to accomplish everything the state is seeking will be “huge,” and that he doesn’t think BLM-Alaska will be able to get significant amounts of funding to help with the issue. However, he said he got the sense that Murkowski was very interested in working on the issue and said his agency would continue to work with the state and others to look for the resources to accomplish as much work as possible.

07/19/2012 - 12:34pm