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Week of August 26, 2012
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Federal contradiction

NPR-A lands proposed for protection harbor dirty ‘legacy wells,’ regulator says

Wesley Loy

For Petroleum News

When U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently announced the “preferred alternative” for managing the vast National Petroleum Reverse-Alaska, Cathy Foerster felt another pang of outrage over the so-called legacy wells.

Foerster, the state’s top drilling regulator as chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, for years has been demanding that the federal government do something about the legacy wells — dozens of holes the federal government drilled between 1943 and 1982.

Many of the wells, now the responsibility of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, have never been properly plugged and abandoned, and pose a junky pollution and safety hazard to the land and to people, Foerster says.

So it was with a sense of indignation when she and other Alaska officials heard Salazar say the federal government wants to bar oil companies from leasing much of the petroleum reserve, in the interest of protecting sensitive areas.

Sorry state of well sites

By Foerster’s count, of the 136 legacy wells in or near the petroleum reserve, 55 are located in areas designated as unavailable for leasing.

“Of these 55 wells, only four have been properly plugged and remediated,” she told Petroleum News.

She has quite a collection of photographs showing well sites strewn with barrels and other junk, or flooded with gunky water, or studded with pieces of metal jutting dangerously above the tundra.

Many of the wells were left filled with diesel, crude oil or drilling fluids, Foerster says. Many have wooden cellars filled with unknown fluids.

“These could be drowning hazards for children or wildlife,” she says.

Most of the wells were left without wellheads, so the pipe is open to the atmosphere with nothing to keep fluids in place or keep reservoir fluids from flowing out, Foerster says.

“Those with wellheads are very old and the wellheads are rusting,” she says. “There is no guarantee of mechanical integrity on any of them.”

One well is leaking natural gas, Foerster adds, and another “leaked oil and had a serious spill a few years ago.”

NPR-A plan upsets delegation

Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation reacted negatively to Salazar’s proposed management plan for the petroleum reserve. In an Aug. 22 letter to Salazar, the three members — Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and Republican Rep. Don Young — called the plan “the largest wholesale land withdrawal and blocking of access to an energy resource by the federal government in decades.”

They say the Interior Department’s preferred alternative would close half the reserve’s 23.5 million acres, and could make it practically impossible to lay pipelines through the reserve for development of possible Chukchi Sea oil and gas discoveries.

In a statement her office released Aug. 13, Murkowski took note of the legacy well issue in the context of the proposed NPR-A management plan.

“Alaskans are not a people who need the federal government to protect them from themselves, particularly from a government that is unwilling or unable to clean up its own messes,” she said.

Murkowski is the top-ranking Republican on the Democrat-controlled Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which on July 12 held a hearing on the legacy wells.

‘We’re aware of problem’

BLM officials have cited the high cost of plugging and abandoning each legacy well, and have noted that wells imperiled by coastal erosion have been secured.

The officials also have said that some of the holes didn’t penetrate producing oil and gas zones, and don’t pose a much hazard. They assure that the legacy wells are being monitored.

At the time of the Senate hearing, BLM officials said they were preparing an updated legacy well inventory, and had a strategy to address 13 legacy wells over three seasons.

Salazar, on Aug. 13 during a trip to Anchorage, personally addressed the legacy well issue with reporters. The day before, Salazar said, he visited one legacy well that had been cleaned up in the last year at a cost of $18 million.

The BLM is in the process of looking at some 30 “high-priority wells,” putting them in risk categories, he said.

The legacy wells, Salazar said, are “a problem of the United State of America from the days of the Navy doing its initial exploration up there, and the days of the United States Geological Survey in the 1970s constructing additional wells. But we’re aware of the problem. We’re working on it. We’ve made significant progress over the last three years.”

He said the legacy wells are among “many matters” across the nation demanding limited budget dollars.

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