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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

AP investigation finds BP was responsible for 600 of more than 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf of Mexico

by Richard Wray

The Gulf of Mexico is packed with abandoned oil wells from a host of companies including BP, according to an investigation by Associated Press which describes the area as “an environmental minefield that has been ignored for decades”.While the explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig has thrown the spotlight sharply on BP’s activities in the Gulf of Mexico, environmental safety in the area has been neglected for decades.
There are more than 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf of Mexico, according to AP, of which 600 belonged to BP. The oldest of the abandoned wells dates back to the late 1940s and the AP investigation highlights concerns about the way in which some of the wells have been plugged, especially the 3,500 neglected wells which are catalogued by the government as “temporarily abandoned”. The rules for shutting off temporarily closed wells is not as strict as for completely abandoned wells.

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.

AP quoted state officials as estimating 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. In state-controlled waters off the coast of California, many abandoned wells have had to be resealed. But in deeper federal waters, AP points out, there is very little investigation into the state of abandoned wells.

The US Minerals Management Service, now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and charged with keeping an eye on offshore drilling, has little power to deal with abandoned wells. It merely requests paperwork to prove that a well has been capped and unlike regulators in states such as California, it does not typically inspect the job.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has so far cost BP more than $3bn (£1.98bn) in actual clean-up expenses, but many times more in terms of the company’s financial value. Its share price has more than halved since the explosion on 20 April and the clean-up is likely to take months if not years. The AP investigation raises the question of whether there are more such environmental disasters waiting to happen.

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