Gulf oil wells 10 miles from Deepwater Horizon site leaking since 2004


While the Deepwater Horizon well has been capped since July, another group of wells about 10 miles away has been leaking oil into the Gulf since 2004, according to federal records.

Citing litigation, federal officials refused last week to answer a series of questions about the ongoing leaks, including how many wells are involved, how much oil has escaped into the Gulf and whether any fines have been issued to Taylor Energy Co, LLC, the company that owns the wells.

Federal officials said a cleanup agreement between the government and Taylor Energy “is the subject of a pending lawsuit concerning the release of details about the decommissioning project.”

Taylor officials did not return calls seeking comment.

A Taylor Energy production platform near the mouth of the Mississippi River was toppled by a mudslide during Hurricane Ivan, according to federal reports. The platform was tied to 26 wells, though it is unclear how many are leaking. The company is reportedly in the process of drilling relief wells to staunch the flow.

The ongoing leaks gained national attention during the BP spill after the government released highly detailed satellite images of the Gulf’s surface. Skytruth, a watchdog group that uses satellite images to monitor environmental problems, first called attention to the ongoing spill.

In response to a Press-Register story about the leak, the Department of Interior and the U.S. Coast Guard suggested at the time that the leak volume was as small as 13 gallons a day.

But John Amos, president of Skytruth and a former oil industry engineer, reported the slick associated with the Taylor spill was 10 miles long June 18. Using a standard method of estimating how much oil is present in a sheen on water based on work by scientists at the University of Florida, Amos reported the slick contained a minimum of 3,157 gallons of oil.

“If the Coast Guard is right and the average leak rate was 14 gallons a day, it would take 225 days at that rate to accumulate 3,157 gallons of oil on the surface,” Amos said Friday. “That means no biodegradation, no waves, no current, no thunderstorms to break it up. It is simply not plausible that oil collected on that spot for 225 days.”

Since 2004, hundreds of incident reports on the Taylor spill have been filed with the National Response Center, the federal agency tasked with documenting oil spills. Those reports contain widely divergent estimates of the amount of oil present on the Gulf’s surface from day to day.

For instance, a report from 2004, shortly after the leak began, describes a sheen 4 miles long and a half-mile wide. Federal officials estimated that sheen contained about a quarter of a gallon of oil.

Meanwhile, a report from July of 2008 described a sheen of identical size, but here the federal estimate was 336 gallons of oil.

“We’re losing confidence in the NRC data, as to whether those official estimates are doing a good job of informing the public about what is happening offshore,” Amos said. “How much oil is coming out of Taylor’s wells, that’s a good question.”

Federal officials refused to answer the question last week.

Leak rates are important during ongoing oil spills, such as the Deepwater Horizon incident, as federal penalties are based on how much oil is spilled.

The Clean Water Act fine associated with the 3,157 gallons estimated by Skytruth on June 18 would be more than $80,000. Federal officials declined to address whether any fines have been levied against Taylor.

The Press-Register could not find any record of Taylor fines during an examination of criminal and civil penalties assessed in the Gulf oil field by the federal government between 2003 and 2010.

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