Another Spill? 3,200 Gulf Wells Unplugged, Unprotected

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New Orleans — 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, The Associated Press has learned.

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.” Those sealed wells were first tallied and reported as a major leaking threat in an investigative report by the AP in July.

The unplugged wells haven’t been used for at least five years, and there are no plans to restore production on them, according to the federal government. Operators have not been required to plug the wells because their leases have not expired.

http://tap2-cdn.rubiconproject.com/partner/scripts/rubicon/emily.htmlAs a result, there is little to prevent powerful leaks from pushing to the surface. Even depleted wells can repressurize from work on nearby wells or shifts in oil or gas layers beneath the surface, petroleum engineers say. But no one is watching to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The addition of the unused but officially active wells, as documented in a list provided to the AP by federal officials under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, means at least three-fifths of the 50,000 wells ever drilled in the Gulf have been left behind with no routine monitoring for leaks.

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.

Rules for unexpired leases are different, and have allowed operators to simply walk away from idle wells. Some of the roughly 3,200 unsealed wells contained in the latest list were drilled 60 years ago, and most are more than 10 years old.

Federal regulators described idle wells on active leases as a “potential threat” to the environment in a September letter to operators announcing a new program, dubbed “Idle Iron,” to plug them within three years. The letter said the program would cover more than 3,000 idle wells but didn’t say what kind of wells would be included or whether the wells already contained at least some cement plugging.

The list of specific wells covered by the Idle Iron initiative was provided to the AP by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which regulates oil and gas leases on federal lands on the sea floor.

BOEMRE refused to provide the list when the AP first requested it in September. The agency said at the time that it first wanted to verify with gas and oil companies that the wells were correctly classified. The AP argued that the FOIA provides access to records as they exist at the time of the request, but the agency still refused to release the material.

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