Senate panel advances bills on lands, Denali name

JUNEAU — A U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday advanced legislation that would provide $50 million to clean up abandoned federal wells on current or former National Petroleum Reserve lands.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also passed out a bill that would change the name of Mount McKinley to Denali and a measure that would provide Sealaska Corp. with about 70,000 acres in the Tongass National Forest to finalize the transfer of land owed to Native tribes under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Both bills are from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

Murkowski and Begich billed the Sealaska plan as a compromise after years of effort. A similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is pending in the House.

“I realize this bill won’t make everyone happy, but we’ve made literally hundreds of changes over the past four years in an effort to meet every possible concern,” Murkowski said in a release. “My goal was to fulfill the promises made to the shareholders of Sealaska by the federal government back in 1971, to support what’s left of Southeast’s timber industry and to recognize that there are areas here that deserve additional protection. I believe this bill accomplishes all three.”

The money to clean up the abandoned wells is expected to come from the sale of crude helium under the Helium Stewardship Act, which advanced Tuesday. The bulk of the $50 million is expected to go toward cleaning up wells in the Alaska arctic.

There are about 90 abandoned wells in the Lower 48 that would be affected by the proposal, according to information provided by the committee, with estimates that cleanup of those wells could average up to $75,000 each.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management last month released a draft plan identifying 50 abandoned wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that it believes require cleanup by the agency. BLM manages the reserve, where more than 130 wells were drilled under the federal government’s direction as part of an exploratory oil and gas program from the 1940s to the 1980s.

The draft did not contain a cost estimate, and other interested parties were reviewing the plan, with a goal of reaching agreement on a way forward. Addressing one well alone can cost millions of dollars. BLM-Alaska has said it has secured about $86 million to plug 18 legacy wells since 2002.

President Barack Obama had proposed shifting revenue-sharing payments to Alaska from oil and gas development in the reserve to a new fund to help with the cost of BLM projects, including cleaning the well sites. Murkowski called that idea “dead on arrival.” She and other state leaders have seen the cleanup as a federal responsibility.

The bills are now cleared for consideration by the full Senate.

Members of Ohio’s congressional delegation have opposed changing the name of North America’s highest peak to Denali, the name that’s widely used for it in Alaska, and it’s not clear what kind of traction the proposal will get. Denali is an Athabascan word meaning “the high one.” Ohio is the birthplace of President William McKinley.

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