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article imageOp-Ed: Investigation of Gulf's abandoned oil wells yields surprises

By Karen Graham     Jul 18, 2015 in Environment
Five years ago, the Obama administration promised the American people it would move swiftly to permanently plug unused oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico. But an investigation by the Associated Press reveals that little has been done.
In an AP exclusive, released on Saturday, July 18, it was revealed the threat to the Gulf of Mexico and the environment is real, and will only increase with time, as even more oil and gas shafts are lingering for longer periods of time without being permanently plugged.
The report says there is no data on the number of incompletely sealed wells that may have leaked, because the wells are not monitored as carefully as active wells. But with fewer barriers to hold back pressure from petroleum under the surface, they can rupture more easily.
April 2010 report on abandoned oil and gas wells
Detail of a map showing geology  oil (in red) and gas (green) fields  in the Gulf of Mexico Region I...
Detail of a map showing geology, oil (in red) and gas (green) fields, in the Gulf of Mexico Region Illustration: U.S. Geological Survey US Geological Survey.
Readers might remember that in 2010, at the time of the BP oil spill, an investigation by the Associated Press found there were over 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf, and no one, not the petroleum companies or the federal government, was checking to see if any of them were leaking.
It should be noted that the oldest of those sealed or "temporarily sealed" wells were abandoned in the 1940s, and yet they are not being monitored. The investigation uncovered some troubling information on 3,500 of the neglected wells, described in government documents as being "temporarily abandoned."
Federal regulations covering "temporarily abandoned" wells specifically state oil companies must present a plan to either reuse or permanently plug those wells within a year from the time of abandonment. The AP investigation found that the rule was circumvented routinely, and more than 1,000 of those wells have lingered in that unfinished condition for almost 20 years.
Energy giant BP has installed a new cap atop a ruptured deep-sea oil well in the Gulf of Mexico  whi...
Energy giant BP has installed a new cap atop a ruptured deep-sea oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, which it is hoped will stop the flow of oil after almost three months.
TOE News
New analysis of federal data on Gulf of Mexico oil and gas wells
The new investigation found 25 percent more wells have remained temporarily sealed for over a year, the numbers rising from 2,855 to 3,576.
Wells that have been temporarily sealed for more than a year make up 86 percent of all the temporarily sealed wells, an increase from 78 percent.
There has been an increase in the number of wells with temporary seals for five years or more, rising from 1,631 to 1,895 — a 16 percent increase.
All the figures show an increase from the last investigation, five years ago, and tell us that little, if anything is being done by the petroleum industry or the federal government.
"I think there are signs of progress, but, my God, we got a long way to go," said Bob Bea, an emeritus engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, when told of the AP findings. Bea advised the government on safety issues after the BP oil spill. He said he gives the government "a poor grade" in their efforts to seal wells since 2010.
As long as federal regulations can be side-stepped by petroleum companies, the damage to the Gulf will continue. Forget the fines, no matter how big the amount, because the issue on permanently sealing the thousands of temporarily sealed wells is not being addressed.
Potential environmental time bombs in the form of 27 000 abandoned oil and gas wells are lurking in ...
Potential environmental time bombs in the form of 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells are lurking in the hard rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico.
The wells are subject to corrosion and a huge amount of pressure at depths that go down two miles below the water's surface. And further, the shafts sometimes penetrate as much as six miles below the seabed.
"The older it is, probably the more attention needs to be given to monitoring and maintaining it," said John Rogers Smith, a retired professor at Louisiana State University who also used to do engineering work for offshore wells in the oil industry. "Are ... people really paying attention to something that's sitting there doing nothing for five-plus years?"
It is quite laughable, really, knowing the federal government has for years issued reports that even small releases of oil from these wells is harmful to the environment. And in all fairness, the government says it has succeeded in well safety efforts, particularly since the 2010 BP oil spill. According to the AP, "there were 25,928 permanently sealed wells in mid-May, up 10 percent from 23,468 at the end of the BP spill."
But regardless of the results, the pressure on the Gulf is increasing. Since 2010, there has been an increase on the number of wells in the Gulf, up five percent since 2010, from 50,784 to 53,481. The number of abandoned wells has also increased, from 3,669 to 4,081, a rise of 11 percent. When is it going to stop? Perhaps, when we have another oil spill.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Gulf of Mexico, oil wells, Obama administration, Five years, leaking into gulf
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