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Work continues on legacy well issue in Alaska

Posted: June 22, 2012 - 12:04am

JUNEAU — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has agreed to plug at least one additional abandoned well in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska provided it receives the money to do so.

However, the issue of how or whether to address other so-called legacy well sites in the region remains under discussion between the agency and Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or AOGCC.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed a resolution urging 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.” BLM manages the abandoned wells, drilled under the government’s direction as part of an exploratory program between 1944 and 1981.

The resolution also states that wood and metal debris and deteriorating buildings at the well sites “litter the landscape and detract from the natural beauty of the Arctic region.”

While BLM-Alaska had hoped to have an updated plan for addressing unplugged wells within the reserve this past spring, spokeswoman Artealia Gilliard said the agency is still working with AOGCC and others to develop a list of priorities. There is a difference in opinion on what wells are problems or not, and which are properly plugged or not, said Cathy Foerster, an AOGCC commissioner.

One project that BLM-Alaska and AOGCC have agreed should be tackled next is a well site about 20 miles southeast of Barrow, known as Iko Bay No. 1, which has been emitting gas. Gilliard called it a low-level emission that doesn’t pose an environmental threat, but said it makes more sense to plug the well rather than just replace a problem valve.

BLM-Alaska is working on a budget request for the project and looking at whether there are any others nearby — within a 50-mile radius — that it could take care of while there are people and equipment out there, said Wayne Svejnoha, BLM-Alaska branch chief for energy and minerals.

The agency gets about $1 million a year to manage legacy wells, though Gilliard said BLM-Alaska has been successful in securing additional funding for priority projects and urgent needs. A single project can run in the millions of dollars, in large part due to mobilization costs. The reserve is a 23-million acre roadless area 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Since 2002, BLM-Alaska has secured $85.9 million to plug 18 legacy wells, Gilliard said.

As for the debris, things like rusted drums and construction materials, Svejnoha said BLM would prefer that those who made the mess clean it up. He said efforts are being made, citing work that the Army Corps of Engineers has done at Umiat, but noted that other federal agencies also have their own budgeting process and priorities.

He said as BLM-Alaska goes out to work on legacy wells, it will look at the problems in the vicinity holistically.

Foerster said the more that BLM and AOGCC work together the more likely they will be to make a difference. Foerster has criticized what she considers to be the hypocrisy of the federal government in wanting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling while leaving a mess at the petroleum reserve.

She said she can be patient, as long as progress is being made.

“Any improvement is better than no improvement,” she said.

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