An oil spill unleashed by Hurricane Ida is highlighting longstanding concerns about the more than 18,000 miles of decommissioned pipelines that still snake through the Gulf of Mexico, even though they no longer transport crude and natural gas.
The spill, roughly three miles from the Louisiana coast, is believed to have sprung from an abandoned 12-inch pipeline that still had oil inside. It appeared on Tuesday to have been contained, but not before it created an oily slick 14 miles long.
There are more than 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers) of abandoned pipelines that litter the Gulf of Mexico, some installed in the middle of the last century. The steel meanders as deep as 9,500 feet (2,900 meters) below the surface alongside some 8,600 miles of active pipelines.
“There is so damn much of that hardware in the Gulf,” said John Amos, president of SkyTruth, a West Virginia-based group that uses satellite imagery to investigate environmental damage. “It’s all kind of a ticking time bomb.”
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees offshore oil and gas facilities, doesn’t inspect decommissioned pipelines or verify that operators fully cleaned them of oil and gas before taking them out of service, the Government Accountability Office warned in a March report.
“BSEE does not have a robust process to address the environmental and safety risks posed by leaving decommissioned pipelines in place on the sea floor,” the government watchdog agency said. That includes failing to monitor the condition and location of decommissioned pipelines on the sea floor, which limits the bureau’s ability to detect exposure, movement and other risks, the GAO found.
Abandoned pipelines pose an environmental threat because they may still contain oil and gas if they weren’t thoroughly cleaned before they were decommissioned. According to a report from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, roughly 40% of offshore pipeline spills from 1972 to 2017 were tied to hurricanes or mudslides.
“BSEE has allowed the offshore oil and gas industry to leave 97% of pipelines on the sea floor when they’re no longer in use,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans program litigation director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Spokespeople for BSEE did not immediately respond Tuesday to questions about the GAO’s findings or the current spill probe. But the agency said in March that it agreed it needs to impose new regulations addressing the risks of pipeline decommissioning. A rulemaking team has been meeting weekly since March 2020 to examine the issue, and new requirements are being developed, the bureau said.
At the Gulf leak site, regulators and Talos Energy Inc., which previously leased the tract from the government, are still working to identify the owner of the pipeline pinpointed as the spill’s source. The Houston-based oil company, which stopped production at the site in 2017 and later relinquished its lease to the government, has sent divers to investigate the spill and installed a containment dome over it Monday.
The pipeline appears to have moved from its original location and is now “bent and open-ended,” the company said. Nearby there are another two 4-inch pipelines that also aren’t owned by Talos but “are open-ended and appear to be previously abandoned,” the company said. They are among “several non-Talos owned subsea pipelines that were likely impacted by Hurricane Ida,” the company said.
In a letter to Talos Energy, the US Coast Guard on Monday said the company is not responsible for the abandoned line — but the agency isn’t sure who is. “During the course of our pollution investigation, we have also come up empty handed as to the true owner/responsible party of this pipeline due to the fact that many of our databases do not go back as far as this ownership may have extended,” the Coast Guard said.
Talos said in a news release it is working closely with the US Coast Guard and Louisiana state officials to identify the owner of the line and “receive approval to initiate permanent repair of the line.”
“A timeline for repair operations is still being determined,” the company said.
An overflight Sunday showed there was no longer an oil slick in the area, said Lieutenant John Edwards, a Coast Guard spokesman.
“The sheen in the area is dissipating which is characteristic of a limited release and not an ongoing situation,” Edwards said.
Other abandoned Gulf pipelines also ruptured during the storm, according to the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, which is investigating more than 200 reports of oil spills off the state’s coast.
But identifying the owners of old pipelines, some of which have been abandoned for as long as 40 years, can be difficult, Coordinator Sam Jones said in an interview.
“It’s a huge problem because a lot of those were laid many, many decades ago, and there is not a good method for knowing where they were way back then,” said Wilma Subra, a scientist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network in Baton Rouge.
Smaller leaks may go undetected and unaddressed, and every time there is a hurricane, there is a potential for more, Subra said.