Asleep at the Wheel: Regulators Allow Thousands of Gulf Wells to Lie Abandoned, Unplugged and Unmonitored


Here’s another tiny indication that regulation of the oil industry isn’t quite what it should be: The Associated Press reported this week that “more than 3,200 oil and gas wells classified as active lie abandoned beneath the Gulf of Mexico, with no cement plugging to help prevent leaks that could threaten the same waters fouled by last year’s BP spill.”

How’s that for a mind-blower?

The AP correctly points out that these wells “…likely pose an even greater environmental threat than the 27,000 wells in the Gulf that have been plugged and classified officially as ‘permanently abandoned’ or ‘temporarily abandoned.’ ”

These are not idle wells awaiting their next use. These, according to the AP report, are wells that have not been used in at least five years, and there are no plans to restore them.

If you’re asking, like I am, what the hell is going on here? You’re not going to like the answer – Oil companies, like BP, claim they are in no way obligated to make these abandoned wells safe because their leases are still valid. This, of course, is complete and utter B.S.

Over the last 20-odd years, I’ve sued companies for posing this same type of environmental threat to clients’ property – and have forced company officials to abandon and plug old wells. I’ve seen it many times: An oil company leaves the wellbore shut in and rotting away for years or even decades, claiming the lease is still valid because there’s active production from another well in the same field or on the same lease. Lackadaisical and complacent state and federal regulators have allowed companies to simply shrug off this sort of liability.

In my opinion, if a well is shut in for more than a year or two, the oil company should be required to plug and abandon the well unless officials can prove that it has real future utility or use. If the lease has expired, the company should have no more than six months to plug and abandon all well bores on the lease. That regulatory scenario would dramatically reduce an environmental risk that continues to wreak havoc on private property across the oil-producing states.

As far as the Gulf of Mexico goes, the AP says that “…[the] 27,000 decommissioned wells were drilled mostly on federal leases that have now expired. Government rules for expired leases on the sea floor require operators to plug the wells or make plans to reuse them within a year. In its original report, the AP documented how oil and gas companies regularly flouted the rules regarding temporary abandonment, with some wells ‘temporarily abandoned’ since the 1950s.”

The problem is that “depleted” wells are far from oil-free, and they can become re-pressurized from work in the area. That means that more than half of the 50,000 wells that have been drilled in the Gulf have been left behind with no monitoring for leaks. None whatsoever. Remember how we keep hearing the BP bull that the Gulf has “natural seeps” that have caused some of the pollution? We should all wonder how much of that seepage is being caused by all these rotting wells.

So how did this environmental threat come to light? Well, it wasn’t from regulatory diligence or a government investigation, that’s for sure. Instead, the Associated Press pried it out of federal agencies with a barrage of Freedom of Information Act requests.

So how do the regulators explain themselves? Well, they don’t. Says the AP “neither the BOEMRE nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which monitors sea pollution, responded to repeated requests for interviews about the [leasing] program.”

Meanwhile, I should note that President Obama held that highly touted news-making Facebook Town Hall meeting this past week. Of course, on the one-year anniversary of the worst environmental disaster in American history, he mentioned the BP spill…wait, let me check…that’s right, zero times. That’s a strong signal of just how top of the mind the Gulf remains for the federal government.

Here’s the AP story via ABC News:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • Just absolutely unbelievable! I am sharing this wherever I can. We have to put pressure on the government to make these companies and plug the wells!

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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