A July AP investigation revealed that there are over 27,000 abandoned oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and that no one is monitoring them. One of these wells was abandoned in 1940, before many of the current regulations were put in place. The report goes on the show that even the current regulations are often ignored.
Of these rigs, 23,500 are permanently abandoned, and 3,500 are only “temporarily abandoned.” Companies that plan to leave a well temporarily abandoned have a year to submit plans for permanent sealing. It came as no surprise to POGO, after our decade-long struggle with the Minerals Management Service (MMS), that the AP report found that this “rule is routinely circumvented, and that more than 1,000 wells have lingered in that unfinished condition for more than a decade. About three-quarters of temporarily abandoned wells have been left in that status for more than a year.”
Even the permanently plugged wells pose a threat of leaking. Petroleum engineers told AP that the plugs erode over time and that sometimes depressurized wells can re-pressurize and burst through their caps. In addition to the possibility of leaking quietly underwater, these time bombs pose the danger of exploding. With no one keeping tabs on the well sites, the response to an accident (tug boat collision, geological shift, etc.) could take much longer than with an active well head.
Despite evidence that these abandoned and temporarily abandoned wells are at risk of leaking at any time (as geological conditions shift and cement deteriorates) the plugged wells in federal waters are also often ignored. States, especially California and Texas, have had to reseal a number of wells for environmental and safety purposes. The same wells in federal water would have been left unseen, their cracks and leaks hidden deep under water and paperwork.
Last month, Representative Raul Grijalva (R-AZ) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) sent letters to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar asking that these regulations be enforced. Now that the federal government appears to be back regulating the offshore oil industry, POGO hopes that Salazar and Michael Bromwich, the Director of the the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE), will not only enforce their regulations but strengthen them, and soon. We can’t afford any more mistakes down there.
-- Alex Bland