Hawaii & Alaska
A small herd of musk oxen roam the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Associated Press

AK - Who Will Clean Up Alaska’s 'Orphaned' Oil Infrastructure?

You can feel the encroaching decay in the sides of buildings, in the limp remains of a once-proud drill rig slowly rusting into the waterlogged gravel and tundra.

In the 1950s, one of us, George, was part of the expedition that explored and then advocated for the formation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At that time, he worried the region would end up resembling the disrupted skylines and greasy sheens of Texas’s aging and abandoned oil fields.

More recently, we visited the sprawling spaghetti of pipelines, metallic shells of buildings and this defunct drill rig, now worrying that a legal and regulatory morass will bring George’s dystopian fears to fruition. There has been little formal preparation for what happens when oil ends, even as the Trump administration has announced plans to fast-track the auction of leases for drilling in pristine areas of the Arctic refuge, with similar plans for parts of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

If we ignore the costs for plugging and abandoning wells, dismantling and removing accompanying infrastructure, and fully restoring impacted tundra, we allow for a vast overestimate of the economic value of oil in these outstanding Arctic ecosystems. Unless the intent is to walk away and just leave the mess behind.

For generations, people arriving in Alaska have done just this. Alaska’s legacy of abandoned infrastructure and contaminants has wrought havoc on numerous remote sites, and for many communities. In our travels across the Arctic coastal plain, we encountered abandoned drill sites where metal shards and sun-bleached wood punctuate rotting gravel pads, the acrid smells a clear olfactory reminder of what should not be there.

In the absence of plugging and proper abandonment, fluids and gases left in wells and underground reservoirs can seep to the surface. Added to this chronic challenge are corrosion of well bores from salts and water, the settling of land and changes in the climate that contribute to erosion of the hard surface permafrost.

In a few decades, the bulk of revenues from Alaska’s North Slope will be dispersed, and this decaying industrial mess will be someone else’s problem, if it is dealt with at all.

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