06 July 2010

27, 000 Aging Abandoned Leaking Oil Wells in Gulf of Mexico

*** Disturbing facts on how America has long ignored aging oil wells in the Gulf.

From Denny: Just when you thought the BP oil spill was bad, yes, there's more. Ever wonder why every time there is a beach where tar balls suddenly turn up you hear about scientists taking those tar balls to a lab to identify if they came from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Find that odd? I know I sure have. Certainly it was obvious where these tar balls were coming from, duh, the oil spill. To show up in that number it was a lot more than the usual occasional and smaller amounts of tar balls from diesel fueled ships in the Gulf.

Well, now we are finding out there are 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells out in the Gulf of Mexico dating back to the 1940's when technology was a lot different than today. Environmentalists are calling on the government to take notice and take action to prevent these aging oil and gas wells from leaking more oil into the Gulf.

Turns out that federal regulators typically do not inspect when these offshore wells are plugged or even bother to monitor for leaks after they are plugged. The public is now finding out that oil and gas wells on land, to the tune of thousands of wells, are often improperly plugged just like offshore wells. State and federal regulators are now acknowledging that abandoned offshore wells have been leaking too. While this administration's candor is refreshing, the point remains: So, what are you going to do about it?

The stats are that in the past 60 years, over 50,000 wells have been drilled in the Gulf. Those that have been permanently abandoned number as much as 23,500. There are another 3,500 classified as "temporarily abandoned," say federal regulators. The problem is that far too many wells have been left in this temporary status for 50 years and do not have the full safeguards used on them if they were listed as permanent abandonment. Oh, great.

So you think the permanently sealed wells are OK after all this time? Leave it to an engineer, a petroleum one, to give you the ugly news. The cement plugs used so long ago can age and fail after this many decades. The metal casing used to line the wells also ages in the salt water and rusts. And another sweet factoid? Turns out that even a well where the production was depleted can, over time, repressurize. When that happens that depleted well can spill oil if those sealings also fail.

The Minerals Management Service has been renamed to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Turns out the old MMS guys routinely allowed industry reports on well closures as blindly accepted yet did not inspect the work that was claimed to be done. It is also an ugly fact that no one in the oil industry or the federal or state governments have conducted checks on those long ago abandoned wells. It's like "out of sight and out of mind." It's what you can't see that can come back to bite you on the butt.

Well, one ignored federal watchdog, that investigates for Congress, was barking loudly back in 1994 yet everyone told him to shut up - the GAO (General Accountability Office). The GAO warned that those abandoned wells could easily start leaking and cause an environmental disaster such as we are facing today. "MMS does not have an overall inspection strategy for targeting its limited resources to ensuring that wells are properly plugged and abandoned," stated the report. The GAO also suggested MMS get about the business of setting up a really good inspection program. So, MMS did what they always did and did nothing whatsoever. They ignored sound advice.

Again, another study, this time in 2001 under President You-Know-Who, a study actually commissioned by MMS, it reported that agency officials were "concerned that some abandoned oil wells in the Gulf may be leaking crude oil." Yet another warning went unheeded. Do we see a pattern emerging here?

Get this, the current BP oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon well, was actually being prepared for temporary abandonment. Yeah, that's right. What a mess. Sounds like we were perversely lucky the well head blew up. Otherwise, BP would have been on their merry way half way around the world going, "Who me? You must mean the well failed because sea turtles use it as a day spa. We are not on the hook for any responsibility or accountability."

Why are wells abandoned? Good question. It seems these days we are all learning a lot about the oil and gas industry. The Deepwater Horizon BP well was getting capped until a later production phase. Sometimes, a well is abandoned while the company evaluates the well's potential as a money maker. Other times a well is abandoned while the company develops a solution for a drilling problem. Another reason is when a hurricane damages the well or the oil rig. The really annoying reason for well abandonment is all about the well owners wanting to make more money for their oil so they wait out the stock markets to raise the price of oil.

Supposedly, there are federal regulations about this abandonment issue. Oil companies are to present their plans to the federal agency of how they will reuse the well or permanently plug it. All that has to be done within a year. Clearly, these guys have violated federal regulations - again. These wells have been abandoned for years, even decades. Then there is to be an annual review by the feds. All that's happened over the decades is that the oil companies have bent these rules and regulations to create wells to remain in the temporary column and abandoned for a limitless time.

The way the government has not stood up to act about these abandoned wells is "not unlike the way we dealt with hazardous waste years ago where we just buried it somewhere and didn't think about it," says Derb Carter, a director of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Yeah, it's that philosophy of The Minimum Acceptable again and "out of sight and out of mind." The time for a nation of ostriches hiding their heads in the tar balled sand needs to come to an end.

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