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Abandoned Federal Wells Represent Another Failed and Broken Promise to Alaska

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski today questioned Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials about the agency’s 40-year failure to clean up federally drilled oil and natural gas exploration wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).

“This is the type of crime the federal government would fine a private company millions of dollars for, but since these wells were drilled and are owned by a federal agency they are allowed to willfully ignore the law,” Murkowski said. “Only the federal government could get away with this.”

Federal agencies drilled 136 exploratory oil and gas wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska between 1944 and 1982. Only 16 of the 136 wells have been properly plugged, and seven of those were taken care of by the North Slope Borough, not by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which is responsible for the wells.

The remaining 120 wells are in various conditions of non-compliance with state law. The drill sites, many of which are contaminated by wood, metal, plastic, glass and concrete debris are also littered with rusting barrels once filled with contaminants.

“The BLM argues that it doesn’t have the money to deal with these wells. I have a difficult time reconciling that with the fact that the Interior Department continues to seek increases to the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase more private land,” Murkowski said. “There is clearly too much land already under federal control that cannot be properly taken care of.”

The federal government has earned $9.4 billion from federal lease sales in Alaska, yet no production has been allowed to occur and the legacy wells remain an ongoing environmental crime.   

“It seems to me that you’ve got money coming in from Alaska but you’re not willing to spend it on Alaska,” Murkowski said. “We’ve been helping you out in Alaska, in considerable ways, but you’re walking away from your responsibilities.”

More photos of the abandoned BLM wells and a map of their location are attached

BLM recently agreed to develop a plan for reclaiming 13 wells over the next three years, but under that timeframe it would still take three decades to clean up all of the sites; a schedule Murkowski deemed unacceptable.

“Addressing this issue may require me to seek a solution through the Appropriations Committee to direct the BLM to appropriately prioritize the importance of cleaning up these legacy wells,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski closed the hearing by calling the government’s actions up to this point “absolutely insufficient, inadequate, and an embarrassment to the federal government.” She also asked for a report by September from the BLM, after they have advanced a scheduled for how they plan to proceed with cleaning up the legacy wells.

Murkowski is the ranking Republican on both the Interior Department’s authorizing and appropriating committees – the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

Alaska State Rep. Charisse Millett and Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Committee Chair Cathy Foerster testified Thursday before the energy committee. Click on the links for video of their testimony. 

Watch the full video of Thursday’s hearing at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Web site.

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