Work Underway to Permanently Plug and Abandon Leaking Well in Ship Shoal Area, Gulf of Mexico

The leaking well on a production platform that generated a slick in the Ship Shoal area last week was temporarily killed with an injection of drilling mud on July 11, and will now be permanently plugged with cement.  This is something that probably should have been done years ago, since this well — drilled in the 1970s — hasn’t been in production since 1998.  This leak began while the new owners were working to permanently plug the well. They reported having problems with the casing, which suggests that the well pipe was deteriorating, probably from corrosion.  We’re hoping that BSEE is requiring Gulf oil and gas operators to systematically (and expeditiously) work to permanently plug the thousands of wells that have been lingering for years, zombie-like, in a state of suspended animation known as “temporary” abandonment. The Associated Press reported on this practice back in 2010 – it’s worth another look at their excellent investigation.

Here’s what this relatively minor spill looked like from the air, thanks to Bonny Schumaker from On Wings of Care.  Supposedly this was a release of natural gas, natural gas condensate, and water, but there also appears to be some thick, oily mousse (the brownish-orange material) in the mix. Condensate (a light, toxic and volatile hydrocarbon liquid) typically does not generate mousse, so maybe there was also some crude oil leaking from the site:

A couple of interesting things happened during this spill in terms of federal response.  The Coast Guard claimed that there was no blowout in this incident.  Yet global oilfield services giant Schlumberger defines “blowout” as “An uncontrolled flow of reservoir fluids into the wellbore, and sometimes catastrophically to the surface. A blowout may consist of salt water, oil, gas or a mixture of these.” If this incident put natural gas into the air, and condensate and mousse into the water, it clearly meets the industry’s definition of blowout.  Fortunately this was a low-pressure well at the end of its productive life, so this blowout was not particularly spectacular — although it was dangerous enough to evacuate the platform.

And the Federal Aviation Administration slapped a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over the site for a couple of days, prohibiting anyone from flying within three nautical miles of the platform at any altitude below 10,000 feet.  Talking to a knowledgeable pilot with our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners, SouthWings, we learned that the FAA actually doesn’t have this authority:  they only have jurisdiction to enact TFRs within 12 miles of the coast, and this incident was more than 40 miles offshore.

We’re glad this incident seems to be nearly resolved, with no injuries and relatively little environmental damage. But we’re concerned about the integrity of thousands of other abandoned wells in the Gulf, and by the actions and statements of federal authorities that — intentional or not — hinder effective communication with the public about what’s happening in our public waters.