Legacy wells due for cleanup

Download Audio

More than one hundred abandoned oil wells dot the tundra on federal land on the North Slope, and efforts to clean them up have been delayed for decades. Now, the Bureau of Land Management has launched an ambitious plan to remediate many of the wells that are the highest priority hazards.

The Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday announced continued efforts to cleanup about fifty of the abandoned wells with federal money secured in 2013.

Steve Cohn, deputy director of resources for BLM, Alaska, says the wells were drilled during the 1940s and 50s by the US Geological Survey and the US Navy, before the lands were transferred to BLM to administer as the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska.

“These wells have really always been a federal responsibility. They were drilled by federal agencies for the purpose of trying to determine what the resources are in the area. But now it is our responsibility as well to make sure these wells are properly cleaned and remediated. ”

The risks posed by the wells are highly variable, according to Cathy Foerster, chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

One, that’s going to be plugged this year, has been leaking hydrocarbon gasses into the environment for years, some have all kinds of surface debris, including old drilling mud, that has probably caused ground contamination, one site has hundreds of drums. ”

Some are located in subsistence hunting areas, and could pose a danger to human health. However, no ground water contamination has been detected thus far, according to Nicole Hayes, legacy project coordinator.

In 2013, BLM received $50 million from the Helium Stewardship Act. The agency has spent $10 million of those funds to plug three of the so called legacy wells at Umiat in NPRA and to conduct surface cleanup near Cape Simpson, East of Barrow.

The agency announced contract awards and its strategic plan to move forward on a cleanup program at it’s Campbell Creek Science Center. Hayes, legacy wells says since 2002, 68 wells have been cleaned up or do not need further action, while 18 of them are still being used by USGS to monitor Arctic climate change.

“And then fifty wells are the ones we have focused on as needing some level of remediation, either surface or subsurface.”

BLM’s program will target eighteen of those wells for work this year. Hayes says the remaining 40 million dollars from the Helium fund money will be used on contracts with Marsh Creek and Olgoonik Construction.

The wells needing work have been prioritized in collaboration with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The logistics of the work make it expensive. Hayes says it takes two to three million dollars just to mobilize to the sites, due to the heavy equipment needed. And Rob Brumbaugh, a former well remediation coordinator, says records on the wells either were lost or not kept at all.

“When we go to plug these wells, we really don’t know what we are getting into. We have some rough ideas based upon some of the studies that are still around. But you are dealing with old wellhead components, that may or may not be functioning, and you are dealing with old casing, which may or may not be collapsed.”

Brumbaugh says ice has plugged many of the wells, and that has to be removed before cement plugs can be put in.

Hayes says to date, BLM and the US Army Corps of Engineers have spent 99 million dollars on plugging and cleaning up 21 of the wells.  It will take an additional $100 million to remediate the wells not completed this year.  She says the cleanup program has been made possible by the efforts of Senator Lisa Murkowski to secure funding for the cleanup program.