More than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lurk in the hard rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico, an environmental minefield that has been ignored for decades. No one â€” not industry, not government â€” is checking to see if they are leaking, an Associated Press investigation shows.
The oldest of these wells were abandoned in the late 1940s, raising the prospect that many deteriorating sealing jobs are already failing.
The AP investigation uncovered particular concern with 3,500 of the neglected wells â€” those characterized in federal government records as "temporarily abandoned."
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. About three-quarters of temporarily abandoned wells have been left in that status for more than a year, and many since the 1950s and 1960s â€” eveb though sealing procedures for temporary abandonment are not as stringent as those for permanent closures.
So whatâ€™s the worst thing that could happen?
As a forceful reminder of the potential harm, the well beneath BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig was being sealed with cement for temporary abandonment when it blew April 20, leading to one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation’s history. BP alone has abandoned about 600 wells in the Gulf, according to government data.
There’s ample reason for worry about all permanently and temporarily abandoned wells â€” history shows that at least on land, they often leak. Wells are sealed underwater much as they are on land. And wells on land and in water face similar risk of failure. Plus, records reviewed by the AP show that some offshore wells have failed.
Oh, at least someone is watching the right?
Despite the likelihood of leaks large and small, though, abandoned wells are typically not inspected by industry or government.
Oil company representatives insist that the seal on a correctly plugged offshore well will last virtually forever.
Well thatâ€™s reassuring because the last thing big oil would do to us is lie about an environmental issue. Especially an environmental issue that would cost them money.
Officials at the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees the agency that regulates federal leases in the Gulf and elsewhere, did not answer repeated questions regarding why there are no inspections of abandoned wells.
Duh, the oil industry has said that everything is okay. Why would anyone need to check up on big business?
State officials estimate that tens of thousands are badly sealed, either because they predate strict regulation or because the operating companies violated rules. Texas alone has plugged more than 21,000 abandoned wells to control pollution, according to the state comptroller’s office.
Offshore, but in state waters, California has resealed scores of its abandoned wells since the 1980s.
In deeper federal waters, though â€” despite the similarities in how such wells are constructed and how sealing procedures can fail â€” the official policy is out-of-sight, out-of-mind.