Myths and Facts Q&As

#1: Is BLM really “lollygagging” on clean-up of legacy wells in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska?

Since 2002, the BLM has plugged eighteen wells and remediated four reserve pits at a cost of 85.9 million dollars. At this time, the BLM is developing a strategic plan to prioritize future work.

#2: Does BLM really plan to designate Legacy Wells as national historic sites in order to avoid cleaning them up?

Every federal undertaking from building a campground to thinning trees for fire fuels reduction, must be reviewed against the provisions of certain laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act. For sites at least fifty years old, the National Historic Preservation Act requires that the agency consider and document the potential historic significance. Historical significance in and of itself does not preclude plugging or cleanup and is considered well in advance of on the ground activities.

#3: I have seen pictures showing oil on the surface that appears to have leaked – or is leaking – from a well.

Many of the Simpson Peninsula wells and core tests were drilled in natural oil seeps, oil on the tundra surface that local residents historically utilized for heating purposes. When the U.S. Navy began exploring what was then Naval Petroleum Reserve #4, the seeps were logical locations to drill. The wellhead photograph most often shown in media is actually a plugged well and oil has not leaked from the well itself. The wellhead was reestablished.

#4: If the well mentioned in #3 is plugged and is not leaking, what about the barrels and trash floating in the surrounding oil?

During plugging operations, the tundra was snow covered and workers at the site were unable to see and retrieve the barrels in April 2006. Other surface debris has been removed from the site. The BLM’s Arctic Field Office is planning to focus on surface remediation projects during the 2013/2014 field seasons.

#5: How much does it cost to plug a legacy well?

The cost varies, depending on the distance equipment has to be mobilized and if economies can be realized by plugging multiple wells when they are nearby. Cost increases significantly if remediation of the site is necessary. Approximately 85.9 million has been spent to plug 18 wells. Congress typically appropriates a million dollars each year for BLM-Alaska.

#6: Why does it cost so much to plug a well?

Because these well sites are so remote, access is limited to overland travel in the winter or by air in the summer. Ice roads must be developed to move equipment and gear to set up on-site camps adequate to shelter workers in temperatures as cold as minus forty. Provisions and fuel must be constantly resupplied and daylight is limited. Specialized equipment must be winterized and transported on sleds hundreds of miles from Deadhorse, the principal road accessible supply depot and town.

#7: Why doesn’t the BLM seem to be able to plug Legacy Wells to State of Alaska standards?

In some cases, legacy wells were drilled and plugged over 65 years ago. Based on site inspections and risk evaluations, the BLM considers many of the wells as in no need of further action. The BLM recognizes the importance of cleaning up the wells and continues to work closely with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to come to agreement on well conditions.

#8: Did the BLM really lose some legacy wells?

The BLM does not have exact geographic coordinates for two wells, but does know their general locations from old drilling records. A landslide covered one core test in 1947, and the U.S. Navy drilled the Minga test velocity well in the center of a frozen lake. The BLM inspects these locations as part of ongoing monitoring efforts, and has not identified any problems or issues. A third location is within the Barrow landfill, and is not monitored by the BLM.

#9: What is the difference between a well and a core test, test hole, etc.?

Of all the exploratory drilling conducted in what is now the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to gather geologic data or identify petroleum reserves, none have ever been used to produce oil or gas. A core test is not an oil or gas well. A core test is a hole drilled to collect geologic information. All of the temperature monitoring wells used by the U.S. Geological Survey to track the thermal state of north slope permafrost are properly plugged above the hydrocarbon bearing zones and into the well's surface casing.

#10: What about the inconsistent numbers for legacy wells. How many legacy wells are there?

136. This number takes into account all holes punched in the ground by Government sponsored programs, regardless of whether the objective was seeking hydrocarbon, geologic, or permafrost information. The U.S. Navy drilled 91 test holes from 1944-1953 during the first major drilling period. Between 1953 and 1975 9 wells were drilled, and all were located near the village of Barrow. The second major drilling period took place between 1975 and 1981, when an additional 36 wells were drilled.