After BP leak report, state calls for review of all North Slope wells

Responders from Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the North Slope Borough, and BP Exploration Alaska (BPXA) has been established to respond to natural gas and crude oil discharge near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)

State regulators are calling for a review of thousands of oil wells on the North Slope by the end of this year.

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The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is ordering all wells on the North Slope that have a similar design to a BP well that failed this spring, to be shut in immediately and reported to the state.

The emergency order comes after BP blamed an April oil spill and gas leak on a piece of a well casing that buckled under pressure from thawing permafrost.

The company later shut in five other producing wells that had a similar design.

But, Cathy Foerster, who sits on the commission, said the company kept the results of its investigation largely quiet.

“When BP was in here last week we asked them if they had shared the information with all of their operators and they said they had only shared it with their co-owners,” Foerster said.

Foerster said she was disappointed by the company’s decision.

It isn’t clear how many wells on the North Slope have a similar design. But, Foerster said she was confident that engineers for each company could complete the review process before the end of the year. She said BP’s flawed Prudhoe Bay well was older and she doesn’t think newer fields on the North Slope will have similarly designed wells.

“I don’t think many modern wells were drilled that way, but I don’t know,” Foerster said.  “We’re doing this just to make sure.”

Foerster said operators will not have to shut in the flawed wells permanently – they can pay to have them fixed.

Foerster said the permafrost around the wells is not thawing because of climate change; rather she blames it on the heat from the oil and gas and other fluids being pumped from thousands of feet underground to the frozen surface.

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Rashah McChesney is a photojournalist turned radio journalist who has been telling stories in Alaska since 2012. Before joining Alaska's Energy Desk , she worked at Kenai's Peninsula Clarion and the Juneau bureau of the Associated Press. She is a graduate of Iowa State University's Greenlee Journalism School and has worked in public television, newspapers and now radio, all in the quest to become the Swiss Army knife of storytellers.