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Murkowski Presses Interior Secretary on Key Alaskan Concerns

Senator Inquires About Legacy Wells, Land Conveyances, ANWR, King Cove Road

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Lisa Murkowski today pressed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on her department’s handling of decades-old exploration wells drilled by the federal government in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), and on the slow pace of conveying land owed to the state of Alaska and Alaska Natives.

NPR-A Legacy Wells

“The department is presiding over an environmental disaster in the NPR-A that must be remedied,” Murkowski said Thursday at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing on DOI’s policies and programs. “More than 100 wells were drilled by the federal government and then simply abandoned. These ‘legacy wells’ are full of contaminants that pollute the environment – and the federal government has all but abandoned its responsibility to clean up after itself.”

From 1944 to 1981, the federal government drilled 136 exploratory wells in the NPR-A. Only 16 of the wells have been properly plugged. The remaining 120 wells are in various conditions of non-compliance with state law. In May, the Bureau of Land Management, which is the DOI agency responsible for the wells, released a plan identifying only 50 of the wells as being in need of remediation.

“If the federal government was a private operator and had abandoned these wells, as the federal government has, the state would have had an opportunity to levy some fines on that private operator – and our estimates are that it would be about $41 billion in fines. So I’m concerned about what I believe to be a double standard here,” Murkowski said. 

The Interior Department has suggested using a portion of the state’s share of future revenues from the NPR-A to cover the cost of cleaning up the wells. Murkowski has called that idea “dead on arrival.”

Click here for video of Murkowski’s comments on the federal obligation to clean up the legacy wells in the NPR-A.

Land Conveyances

Murkowski also questioned Secretary Jewell about DOI’s proposal to make the state of Alaska pay to complete the conveyance of land owed to the state and to Alaska Natives under the 1958 Alaska Statehood Act and the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

In 2004, Congress passed the Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act in an effort to complete conveyances by the 50th anniversary of statehood in 2009. That goal was not met and for the last several years, the department has annually slashed the budget request for the conveyance program even though the state is still waiting for title to more than 37 million acres of its lands and Alaska Natives are awaiting final transfer of 11 million acres – a quarter of their lands. 

“No other state has ever been expected effectively to pay the federal government to clearly perform a federal obligation of conveying lands to them approved by Congress and past administrations. Yet it appears to be Interior’s idea that somehow Alaska should share in the financial burden to complete the conveyances,” Murkowski said.

Click here for video of Murkowski questioning Secretary Jewell on Interior’s land conveyance program.

ANWR

Murkowski pressed Secretary Jewell on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for not including an alternative for oil and natural gas development in the coastal plain, despite this area expressly being set aside for potential development in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

“I’ve been told the service’s rationale for this omission is because development requires an act of Congress. However, the draft plan included several alternatives for additional wilderness and wild and scenic rivers designations, which would also require an act of Congress,” Murkowski said. 

Murkowski pointed Secretary Jewell to federal regulations that require the department to analyze all reasonable alternatives even if they require congressional approval and urged her to take another look at the plan before releasing the final draft.

ANWR holds a mean estimate of 10 billion barrels of oil.

King Cove Road

Murkowski also thanked Secretary Jewell for agreeing to visit King Cove this summer to see firsthand the need for a land exchange that would provide life-saving access to a nearby airport capable of handling medevac flights in hazardous weather conditions.

“I am looking forward to visiting King Cove with you and introducing you first hand to my constituents,” Murkowski told Jewell. “As you know, I feel strongly that they need and deserve a non-commercial gravel road to provide a land access route to the all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay, as contemplated by the 2009 Omnibus Lands Act. The reason we need the road is simple – it is a matter of health and safety for the people of King Cove. The road would give anyone who is injured or ill a better chance of survival.”

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn is scheduled to visit King Cove at the end of June to hold meetings with community and tribal leaders.

Full video of the forum can be viewed at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee website.

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