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BLM hopes for plan to address wells this spring

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JUNEAU, Alaska — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management hopes to have a plan for addressing unplugged wells within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska this spring.

The Alaska House and Senate have passed a resolution urging BLM to properly plug and reclaim the so-called legacy wells to protect the environment. The House will be asked to agree to changes made to the resolution in the Senate.

BLM-Alaska spokeswoman Artealia Gilliard said her agency is working with the state and Alaska-based stakeholders and agencies, including the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, to review the status of the wells and boreholes.

Gilliard said her agency, with input from the oil and gas conservation commission, plans to rank the unplugged wells from highest to lowest risk to the environment and develop plugging cost estimates and budgets. "We anticipate a coordinated action plan this spring," she said in an email.

The government drilled about 137 wells in the reserve as part of an exploratory oil and gas program between 1944 and 1981, according to HJR29 and testimony. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management operates the abandoned wells.

The resolution said just seven wells have been properly plugged and reclaimed. It said others are out of compliance with Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulations or can no longer be found but that the state cannot impose fines on the federal government for violating those regulations. There is some dispute between the commission and BLM on these numbers.

The resolution stated that legacy wells that haven't been properly plugged and reclaimed pose "significant risk" to surface vegetation, groundwater, fish, land mammals, and sea mammals. It also said that wood and metal debris and deteriorating buildings at the sites of the legacy wells "litter the landscape and detract from the natural beauty of the Arctic region."

Cathy Foerster, a commissioner with the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, in testimony on the resolution, pointed out what she considers the hypocrisy of the federal government in wanting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling while leaving a mess at the petroleum reserve.

BLM-Alaska gets about $1 million a year to manage legacy wells but addressing one well alone can cost millions of dollars.

"The Arctic environment, winter operating conditions and the lack of infrastructure within the NPR-A presents unique challenges that make plugging and remediating legacy wells an expensive and tedious process," Gilliard wrote in an email.

Gilliard said the agency has received additional funds in the past to address high-priority wells. Since 2005, she said $56 million has been spent on plugging and remediating wells.

The Legislature's website shows 55 of the Legislature's 60 members — including the full House — had signed on to the measure sponsored by Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage.

Millett, in a speech Monday on the House floor, welcomed word of an anticipated BLM plan. She said she hopes the plan will lead to action, and that she looks forward to seeing it.