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