JUNEAU — A proposal to have the state help pay to clean up abandoned federal well sites in the Alaska arctic is “dead on arrival,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Tuesday.
During a subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., Murkowski said the responsibility for dealing with the so-called legacy wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska falls to the federal government.
There is “no doubt in my mind but that when the federal government comes in to land that has been federally designated, drills wells, walks away from it, leaves a mess, that that is the federal government’s responsibility, and that it should not then be on the shoulders of the state of Alaska,” the Republican senator told Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
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. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management manages the reserve.
BLM-Alaska said it has secured about $86 million to plug 18 legacy wells since 2002 and is working with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and others to prioritize the remaining cleanup. The two sides have differed on which wells are problems and which are properly plugged.
Among the wells in question, 18 are being used and managed by the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor as climate change monitoring wells, while 24 others are on land that has been transferred out of federal ownership, according to testimony provided to state lawmakers earlier this year by BLM-Alaska State Director Bud Cribley. Cribley said BLM was monitoring conditions at 41 legacy well sites.
In his budget plan, President Barack Obama proposed temporarily halting revenue-sharing payments to Alaska from oil and gas development in the reserve and instead diverting them to a new fund.
The fund would supplement BLM spending and address BLM projects, including the cleanup of legacy well sites and completion of land conveyances that Murkowski has said were owed to the state and Alaska Natives since Alaska became a state.
Under the budget proposal, the current revenue-sharing agreement would resume after work on those efforts was complete.
Gov. Sean Parnell and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, agree with Murkowski, that the cleanup responsibility rests with the federal government.
“The Department of Interior should develop an effective strategy to clean up the legacy wells and should pay for it with the cleanup funds from their own budget, not penalize the State of Alaska for pointing out this responsibility,” Begich said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Jewell told Murkowski the legacy wells are a significant problem.
“We need to find a way to fund it in a budget that doesn’t have enough funding for everything that we want to do,” Jewell said. If the current proposal isn’t acceptable, the two sides need to work together on an alternative, she said.
Murkowski said she needed to hear that Jewell agreed that it’s “not the state of Alaska’s responsibility to clean up the federal government’s mess.”
Jewell responded that wells were drilled to assess the petroleum reserve in Alaska and the state and federal governments will benefit from further development of those resources.
She said she deems the state’s share of revenue from development to be a reasonable source to address the issue.
• Online: BLM-Alaska NPR-A legacy well site: http://on.doi.gov/wIr0MJ