BLM to tackle four high-risk abandoned wells this year

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a plan May 8 identifying 50 abandoned wells in the Alaska Arctic that it believes require clean-up by the agency.

The draft plan prioritizes the remediation of the first 16 of those sites in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, at least one of which is near a well-traveled winter road and has a gas leak that the agency says could pose a threat to public health and safety. The plan anticipates surface work to begin as early as this year, with clean-up of drums submerged in oil seeps and other debris around several sites. 

One landowner in the region, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., said it is pleased that the agency is tackling the work, but said it disagreed with BLM’s proposal to pay for it with money diverted from the state of Alaska’s 50 percent share of NPR-A oil revenues, mainly lease rentals and lease sale bonus bids at this point.

“ASRC is pleased that the longstanding need for the cleanup of the U.S. Navy exploration program continues to be addressed by the Bureau of Land Management. The 2013 strategic plan carries a significant work commitment by the BLM,” ASRC said in a statement.

“All North Slope residents will be grateful when the most hazardous and pressing remnants of more than 40 years of Navy-sponsored explorations are remediated to make the lands safe and clean,” ASRC said.

The government should pay for the work itself, however, similar to the manner in which remediation of Formerly Used Defense sites is funded, ASRC said. Some of the funds diverted from the state’s share also goes to several North Slope communities, the statement said. BLM-Alaska spokeswoman Erin Curtis said the well work could begin next year and span three years, assuming the necessary funding is secured and everything else goes according to plan. The near-term focus will be on the Barrow area.

BLM Alaska State Director Bud Cribley said in a statement that the draft plan “lays out an aggressive strategy to address some of the highest priority wells.”

It’s not clear how much the work will cost. BLM-Alaska said it has secured about $86 million to plug 18 legacy wells since 2002.

BLM manages the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, where more than 130 wells were drilled under the federal government’s direction as part of an exploratory oil and gas program from the 1940s to the 1980s. State leaders have been pushing for progress on the clean-up — the Legislature has twice passed resolutions to that effect — and insisting it is a federal responsibility.

President Barack Obama, in his budget plan, proposed shifting revenue-sharing payments to Alaska from oil and gas development in the reserve to a new fund to help with the cost of BLM projects including clean-up of the so-called “legacy well” sites. Members of Alaska’s congressional delegation and Gov. Sean Parnell have rejected the idea, with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Tuesday calling it “dead on arrival.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell acknowledged the wells are a problem but said in a tight budget environment Alaska’s share of revenue from development seemed a reasonable source to help address the issue. If that option isn’t acceptable, she told Murkowski on Tuesday that the two sides need to work together on an alternative.

Murkowski, in a release Wednesday, called the draft plan a positive step but said she was concerned BLM “agency appears to have unilaterally decided that more than half of the wells don’t require remediation. That’s not the federal government’s decision to make - that’s up to the state of Alaska.”

Besides the 50 sites identified by BLM for additional work, the agency said 18 sites are currently used by the U.S. Geological Survey and 68 others do not need additional action. The 68 include wells that have been previously remediated by a federal agency, conveyed to the North Slope Borough and shallow test boreholes that pose no surface or subsurface risks, according to the draft plan.

Affected parties, including the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or AOGCC, will be asked to comment on the plan before it is finalized, Curtis said, adding that the goal is to finalize the plan in the coming weeks.

The two sides in the past have differed on which wells are problems and which are properly plugged.

Cathy Foerster, an AOGCC commissioner, said she wanted to review the wells listed in the report in greater detail but said the highest priorities identified by BLM are in line with those of the commission.

Foerster, who has been an outspoken critic of BLM’s handling of the legacy well issue, said it appeared BLM had incorporated into its plan many of the concerns raised by the commission. She said she was encouraged by that.

She said she would like to see documentation on the 18 USGS wells, though, to make sure they’re truly being used and that their integrity is intact.

“We may never agree 100 percent on the wells but if we’re getting closer, if we’re agreeing on the highest priority issues and we’re working collaboratively, then we’re moving in the right direction,” she said.

 In its proposed plan BLM had targeted four of the old wells for near-term action. These include three wells near Cape Simpson. “The three Simpson Core Test wells all have high surface risks, with solid waste left behind by the U.S. Navy, including half barrels and other drums submerged in oil seeps. The surface cleanup will begin in 2013,” BLM said in the plan.

A fourth well, Iko Bay Test Well No. 1, “has high surface and subsurface risk rating, as the BLM has identified a small gas leak, which potentially poses a risk to human health and safety. The well lies near a well-travelled winter trail and the building that houses the well has been known to provide shelter for those travelling in inclement weather,” BLM said in its plan.

A small drill rig will be brought to the site to plug the well. The work “will begin during the winter season after a contract is awarded, and the BLM will coordinate with the North Slope Borough to assess opportunities for equipment sharing to reduce costs,” the agency said.

Two other wells near the Iko Bay well, South Barrow Test No. 3 and Avak No. 1, will also be remediated as part of the near-term plan. The work will include proper plugging of the wells and removal of debris.

Following the initial work, BLM will focus on plugging and site remediation of four additional wells near Barrow and six additional wells near Cape Simpson.

Three other  wells in more remote locations are also targeted for work: At the Skull Cliff Core Test near the coast between Barrow and Wainwright the Navy left about 200 drums and other solid wastes; at the Tulageak No. 1, southeast of Barrow, the well is only 350 feet from the Beaufort Sea shoreline and erosion is taking about 15 to 20 feet of shore annually, the BLM said.

Another site, inspected in July 2012, is Gubik No. 2, a test drilled on lands east of Umiat outside the NPR-A and that are now owned by Arctic Slope Regional Corp. A gas leak has been discovered at the well.

“The BLM plans to coordinate a joint-evaluation with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to determine what actions may be appropriate for both Gubik No. 1 and Gubik No. 2,” a nearby well also drllled by the Navy.

Meetings will also be held with ASRC, the landowner.

ASRC has been working with Anadarko Petroleum Corp. on further exploration and possible development of the confirmed gas deposit at Gubik. Also, a few miles to the west Linc Energy is working on testing oil deposits found by the Navy at Umiat, which is within the NPR-A.

Journal reporter Tim Bradner contributed to this article.

05/16/2013 - 7:17am