Nearly two weeks after a pipeline ruptured and leaked tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, environmental policy experts testified before Congress on Thursday, urging lawmakers to require more federal oversight of aging and abandoned offshore oil platforms and pipelines.
The recent oil spillage off the coast of Orange County has brought the country’s oil and gas infrastructure . under new scrutiny HTML3_ HTML3_ Some California legislators and environmental advocates call for an end to all offshore drilling. Others want to ban companies operating in federal and state waters.
Offshore drilling experts presented a grim picture of the federal government’s ability to make sure that oil and gas companies shut down old wells and decommission existing pipelines and platforms. If Congress doesn’t create financial incentives to encourage the industry to decommission its equipment, taxpayers will remain stuck with the bill ..
The cost could be staggering. The federal government’s own estimates suggest that between $35 billion and $50 billion would be needed to plug offshore oil and gas wells that are no longer producing — or are no longer profitable. Companies have pledged to finance only $3.7 billion, which is less than tenth of what was expected.
Private industry would never accept the level of risk the federal government has taken on, said Rob Schuwerk, executive director of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a nonprofit think tank that studies clean energy and greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry.
“There are tens of billions of dollars in offshore decommissioning liabilities,” he said. “Operators don’t have incentives to save money or plan for decommissioning. So they don’t.”
This arrangement is a “bargain deal” for the oil and gas companies, said Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine). Once these companies have extracted as much profit from federal waters as possible, “we’re saying that if at the end, you want to hand back the mess to us, we’ll accept it.”
Of the 23 platforms that were installed between the late 1960s and early 1990s in federal waters off Southern California, the Interior Department has scheduled eight to be decommissioned in the coming years. But there are no plans to address the remainder, including Elly, the decades-old platform linked to the recent spill and operated by Long Beach-based Beta Operating Co.
Advocates and lawmakers fear that if this fossil fuel infrastructure is left for years, larger oil companies will continue to sell their aging assets to smaller ones that don’t have the money or inclination to either invest in upgrades or pay for the removal of platforms and pipelines. Some companies have filed for bankruptcy already. The owner of the ruptured pipeline, Memorial Production Partners, filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 in early 2017. Amplify Energy was the name it took several months to emerge. The trend of declining oil production, aging infrastructure and other problems in the Gulf of Mexico is also a problem. Government estimates indicate that the region’s oil reserves will be exhausted by the middle of the century. According to a 2018 study by Louisiana State University researchers, nearly 1,000 existing platforms and other structures may need to be removed from the gulf by 2027.
Federal regulations require companies to remove pipelines no longer in use from the seafloor. Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement allowed the industry to keep the majority of them in place, despite unclear reasons. In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office estimated there are 18,000 miles of inactive pipelines in the gulf. The federal government doesn’t know where they are located or who is responsible.
Some Republicans attempted to sound upbeat by pointing out that abandoned offshore oil platforms can be used as man-made reefs for fish and coral. Rep. Tom Tiffany from Wisconsin said, “We have to ensure we are not harming the environment.”
But even their witness Greg Stunz, a marine biology professor at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, admitted that certain structures can be beneficial and others should be taken down. He said, “It’s no one size fits all.”
Donald Boesch, president emeritus of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, and a commissioner on the presidential panel created to study the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, warned of dire consequences if industry is allowed to abandon platforms and pipelines in the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico where they can corrode, suffer damage from storms, and cause navigational problems for ships. Boesch stated that oil started to leak from an old pipeline after Hurricane Ida hit the Louisiana coast in August. The pipeline had not been adequately cleared of any residual oil. A tangle of abandoned and old pipelines has also posed a problem for Gulf Coast states trying restore barrier islands.
Boesch wrote in his prepared remarks that this month’s pipeline leak in California raised questions about the federal government’s policy of relying on monthly surface observations and pressure sensors to detect leaks. Some 15 hours passed after sensors detected a pressure drop before the spill was reported. He wrote that the nation needs a smart strategy to achieve its goals. It should limit climate change while minimizing the negative impacts and risks associated with the remaining infrastructure.