WASHINGTON — Alaska officials blasted the federal government Thursday during a Senate hearing for what they said was a lackluster strategy for plugging more than 100 abandoned oil wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the North Slope.
Charisse Millett, a Republican member of the Alaska House of Representatives, testified along with other state officials to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, whose top Republican is Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
At issue was the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to plug oil wells that were drilled in the National Petroleum Reserve decades ago but have since been abandoned.
Murkowski organized the hearing to encourage the federal government to take responsibility for what are referred to as legacy wells.
“From the Alaskan’s perspective this is the absolute height of hypocrisy, when we hold our private operators to the highest of standards and our federal government can not only reject those standards but literally walk away from their responsibilities,” she said.
Federal agencies drilled 136 of these legacy wells during oil and gas explorations from the mid-1940s to the early 1980s.
This year, an Alaska House resolution to urge the bureau to properly fill the wells passed unanimously. Millett, who introduced the resolution, said the wells posed a risk to Alaska’s environment and to public health.
“Allowing these unsafe and unsightly wells to litter Alaska wilderness while threatening wildlife and human safety and damaging the pristine Arctic environment is unacceptable,” she said at Thursday’s hearing.
The bureau said it had plugged 19 of the 136 wells, but Alaskan officials contend that only 16 have been filled to their standards.
Over the next three years, the bureau aims to plug another 13 wells, a rate that Murkowski said wasn’t good enough. Alaska officials and the bureau also haven’t agreed on criteria for filling the wells.
Right now, the bureau is working with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to develop those criteria as well as to create a three-year plan for plugging more of the wells. Bud Cribley, the director of the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska office, said that plan would be released by the end of the year.
The bureau and the commission will prioritize the wells that need to be filled, taking into account the risks they pose to the environment and the public, he said.
Cribley said he didn’t have an estimated cost for plugging all the remaining wells. He said the cost of filling each one could range from $1.4 million to $25 million.
Although the federal government helped Alaska pay for some remediation efforts through the 2009 economic stimulus measure, financial constraints will continue to make the process of plugging the wells difficult, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the committee’s chairman.
“We understand that obtaining the resources necessary to remediate these sites has been a challenge in this time of fiscal constraint,” he said.
But Murkowski argued Thursday that the federal government is using a lack of funding as an excuse to delay fulfilling its responsibilities.
“We’ve been helping you out in Alaska, in considerable ways,” Murkowski said. “You’re walking away from your responsibility, and I’m not going to allow that.”
She said she hopes the bureau “recognizes that there is an imperative, that there is an urgency to this.”