Gulf of Mex­ico has 27,000 aban­doned oil and gas wells

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Jeff Donn and Mitch Weiss

More than 27,000 aban­doned oil and gas wells lurk in the hard rock be­neath the Gulf of Mex­ico, an en­vi­ron­men­tal mine­field that has been ig­nored for decades. No one — not in­dus­try, not govern­ment — is check­ing to see if they are leak­ing, an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion shows.

The old­est of these wells were aban­doned in the late 1940s, rais­ing the prospect that many de­te­ri­o­rat­ing seal­ing jobs are al­ready fail­ing.

The AP in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered par­tic­u­lar con­cern with 3,500 of the ne­glected wells — those char­ac­ter­ized in fed­eral govern­ment records as “tem­po­rar­ily aban­doned.”

Reg­u­la­tions for tem­po­rar­ily aban­doned wells re­quire oil com­pa­nies to present plans to re­use or per­ma­nently plug such wells within a year, but the AP found that the rule is rou­tinely cir­cum­vented, and that more than 1,000 wells have lin­gered in that un­fin­ished con­di­tion for more than a decade. About three­quar­ters of tem­po­rar­ily aban­doned wells have been left in that sta­tus for more than a year, and many since the 1950s and 1960s — even though seal­ing pro­ce­dures for tem­po­rary aban­don­ment are not as strin­gent as those for per­ma­nent clo­sures.

As a force­ful re­minder of the po­ten­tial harm, the well be­neath BP’s Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon rig was be­ing sealed with ce­ment for tem­po­rary aban­don­ment when it blew April 20, lead­ing to one of the worst en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters in the nation’s his­tory. BP alone has aban­doned about 600 wells in the Gulf, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment data.

There’s am­ple rea­son for worry about all per­ma­nently and tem­po­rar­ily aban­doned wells — his­tory shows that at least on land, they of­ten leak. Wells are sealed un­der­wa­ter much as they are on land. And wells on land and in wa­ter face sim­i­lar risk of fail­ure. Plus, records re­viewed by the AP show that some off­shore wells have failed.

The AP has found a se­ries of warn­ings. For in­stance, the Gen­eral Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, which in­ves­ti­gates for Congress, warned in 1994 that leaks from off­shore aban­doned wells could cause an “en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter.” The re­port stated that fed­eral Min­er­als Man­age­ment Ser­vice “does not have an over­all in­spec­tion strat­egy for tar­get­ing its limited re­sources to en­sur­ing that wells are prop­erly plugged and aban­doned.”

And ac­cord­ing to a 2001 study com­mis­sioned by the Min­er­als Man­age­ment Ser­vice, agency of­fi­cials were “concerned that some aban­doned oil wells in the Gulf may be leak­ing crude oil.” But noth­ing came of that warn­ing.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., sent a let­ter Wed­nes­day to In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ken Salazar ask­ing whether reg­u­la­tors have author­ity to do in­spec­tions of aban­doned wells. He said reg­u­la­tors may ul­ti­mately need to check in­dus­try pa­per­work more care­fully or in­spect the work it­self.

“We can’t af­ford the leak that’s now oc­cur­ring. We cer­tainly couldn’t af­ford ad­di­tional leaks in the fu­ture,” Udall said.

He added that there’s gen­er­ally been a trust of in­dus­try, “but I think this is a case where we ought to trust — but we ought to ver­ify.”

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