BLM to clean up old oil wells in western Arctic

Legacy exploratory well drilled in the NPR-A.

Bureau of Land Management

The federal Bureau of Land Management has just released their 2013 Legacy Wells Strategic Plan, which contains specific actions to clean up abandoned oil and gas well sites drilled decades ago by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Geological Survey within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).

“These deteriorating wells have long been a threat to the reserve’s Special Areas and other wild landscapes in the western Arctic,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society. “We applaud BLM’s efforts to prioritize, clean up and properly close the wells that the agency inherited when NPR-A lands were transferred to it more than 30 years ago.”

More than 130 wells were drilled by the federal government between 1944 and 1982 – many of them now abandoned – as part of a program to estimate oil and gas reserves in the Western Arctic’s NPR-A, leaving some polluted drilling sites in an area of incredible ecological importance for caribou (pictured crossing a river at left), polar bears, marine mammals and migratory birds, as well as Alaska Native communities that depend on those species for subsistence.

In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the amount of undiscovered oil in the 22.8 million-acre reserve – an area roughly the size of Indiana, and the largest tract of public land in the nation – was only one-tenth of what had been thought to exist after an earlier assessment nearly a decade earlier. The Integrated Activity Plan for the reserve, issued in early 2013, opens up for drilling less biologically sensitive lands which contain approximately 72 percent of the recoverable oil and gas resources.

“There are many challenges still to be overcome before all legacy wells will be cleaned up, but finalizing a plan for how to clean up the wells is a great step toward resolution,” Epstein said. “The importance of the Western Arctic to Native villages and Alaska’s wildlife cannot be overstated. It is one of the most remote and wild places remaining on the planet, and we are grateful to BLM for being a good steward of this special place.”

Earlier this year, we celebrated another success when the Department of Interior made final plans to protect 11 million acres of important wildlife habitat in the NPR-A from oil and gas development. Join us in continuing to keep treasured places like this truly wild.

View a map showing the location of the NPR-A below: