Thar She Blows! Another Oil “Geyser” in Gulf of Mexico

According to news accounts and reports coming through the SkyTruth Alerts system, a work boat struck a wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico about 9 miles southwest of Port Sulphur, Louisiana, about 8pm on Tuesday.  [NOTE: keep your distance – this well poses a hydrogen sulfide risk.]  The well has been intermittently discharging an oily mixture ever since, in a semi-spectacular way judging from this photo provided by the Coast Guard:

Oily geyser erupting from wellhead damaged by a work boat Tuesday. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

This is reminiscent of a similar incident in the Gulf back in August 2010, when an abandoned wellhead in Barataria Bay was also struck by a vessel and spouted oil 100 feet into the air.

Both incidents underscore a serious problem identified in an investigative report by AP way back in 2010. They identified more than 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf, and found that thousands of these wells are allowed by federal and state regulators to linger for many years in a state of quasi-abandonment:  they are “temporarily shut-in” or “temporarily abandoned,” meaning the steel shutoff valves have been closed but the wells have not been permanently plugged with cement.

This sloppy practice gives the companies flexibility to cheaply and easily reactivate the wells at some point in the future, but here is the problem:  steel rusts; valves can be damaged by, say, a poorly piloted vessel.  And as long as the well is not permanently plugged and abandoned, it represents a spill risk.  As the AP report states:

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 — even though sealing procedures for temporary abandonment are not as stringent as those for permanent closures.

It’s time for the feds and the states to get serious about this ongoing hazard, and tighten up their oversight.

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