This summer the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is targeting surface cleanup of high priority legacy wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), with the majority of the remediation work to be contracted for winter. Of these 136 abandoned exploratory and scientific wells drilled by the federal government between 1944 and 1982, only 16 have been properly plugged and remediated to Alaska standards.
BLM became responsible for managing the NPR-A in 1976 and in 1982 inherited the responsibility to assess, plug, and clean up the abandoned wells. Today 18 wells are still being used by US Geological Survey for monitoring climate change. Some of the remaining wells are in various conditions of non-compliance with state law and require BLM remediation.
Cathy Foerster, Commissioner for the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC), has been working to get BLM to take responsibility for the cleanup since joining AOGCC in 2005. BLM told Foerster the agency had remediated the worst of the wells and had no money and no plans to do anything further.
"I pointed out to them that the wells were in violation of several Alaska regulations--and probably just as many federal regulations," Foerster says. "The then-coordinator told me that since we were both regulatory bodies, the AOGCC shouldn't hold the BLM to the same standards we hold industry to. My response was, if we held them [BLM] to a different standard, it should be a higher one.
"What most surprised me about the issue were the federal government's cavalier attitude and hypocrisy," Foerster says. "They turned their backs on wells leaking hydrocarbon liquids and gases and on sites littered with all kinds of hazardous and non-hazardous debris. Meanwhile they took steps to prohibit responsible oil and gas companies from developing any of ANWR and most of the NPR-A to 'protect' those areas from exactly the sort of thing the government has done and is allowing to continue in exactly the same areas." Excuses given to Foerster ranged from "it's too expensive" to "they're in the middle of nowhere and not hurting anyone."
Realizing that there was no way to get BLM to take responsibility for the cleanup, Foerster decided to put the issue up for public scrutiny by taking it to the Alaska State Legislature, crossing paths with Representative Charisse Millett. "I wanted to know how to help BLM," Millett says. "Cathy thought a resolution to point out the problem would be the best...