Ecology And Environment

Abandoned Oil Wells can Lead to more Disaster in Gulf of Mexico

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"Abandoned Oil Wells can Lead to more Disaster in Gulf of Mexico"
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An Associated Press (AP) investigation has uncovered a disturbing situation. Not only is the BP oil well from the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion spewing tons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily, but older abandoned wells may be leaking into the gulf as well.

The worst of it is, no one is doing anything about this potential situation. Apparently the wells are allowed to lay abandoned through loop holes in government policy and neither the private or public sector is checking up on the condition of these wells. No one knows if they are leaking.

During their investigation the AP discovered more than 27,000 abandoned gas and oil wells sitting beneath the Gulf's surface, and these are not just new wells, some of them are decades old. According to government records, BP alone has approximately 600 of these wells just sitting dormant and this seems to be just a fraction of what's lurking beneath the surface on the Gulf's floor.

The oldest wells date back to the 1940s which means the conditions could be ripe for deterioration. Some of the wells are listed as permanently sealed while others are sitting in limbo and categorized as being in 'temporarily sealed' status.

As a somber reminder, the AP notes that BP was in the process of temporarily closing the well that resulted in the current disaster.

According to the AP report, "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". They go on to describe about three fourths of these 'temporarily abandoned wells' have been sitting in a provisional status for over a year, and others since the 1950s and 1960s.

This is temporary? That's over fifty years! This is a disturbing trend.

Past history shows that land wells often leak once production is stopped. Since the procedure to cap underwater wells is a similar process to land ones, who is to say these ignored wells aren't leaking.  If no one is checking, does anyone really know what is going on under the water in terms of pressure and sea water exposure? Not to mention the unknowns when it comes to geological conditions.

If this is the case, that could be a significant amount of oil seeping out that no one has bothered to follow up on. While inspections are not occurring, the AP report states that oil company representatives "insist that the seal on a correctly plugged offshore well will last virtually forever" (Associated Press).

Another disturbing fact is that it seems some of these wells have what almost what sounds like a grandfather clause meaning they were in existence before regulations were imposed, thus apparently aren't held to any standard.

States such as California and Texas have plugged wells to quell off problems in state waters, however the federal waters located in deeper areas are another story.

Whether a well is permanently or temporarily sealed, the fact is these wells are still there and some sort of monitoring should be taking place. Obviously overseeing is expensive, and perhaps the government does not have the resources to do so, but then perhaps policies and regulations should be re-examined.

Maybe before permission is granted to drill as a part of the drilling agreement, there should be a mandate that physical inspections and documented reports to be routinely submitted even after the well is abandoned either temporarily or permanently.

The AP has extensively reviewed government documentation and state "Government regulators and industry officials say abandoned offshore wells are presumed to be properly plugged and are expected to last indefinitely without leaking. Only when pressed do these officials acknowledge the possibility of leaks".

Everyone is concerned about future offshore drilling, but what about past drilling? A system that allows unused oil wells that date back to the 1950s to be still categorized as 'temporary' has some definitive flaws.

So just how much oil is leaking in addition to the massive BP oil spill? Apparently no one knows.

To read more on the Associated Press investigation and subsequent findings, click here to read the piece written by Jeff Donn and Mitch Weiss.  

More about this author: Leigh Goessl

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