Here's why more than 32,000 abandoned and orphaned offshore wells litter the outer continental shelf

Here’s why more than 32,000 abandoned and orphaned offshore wells litter the outer continental shelf

Located about 12 miles off the coast of Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, an abandoned well has been pouring oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 18 years. This is the longest oil spill in US history and is still ongoing as of this writing.

Left unchecked, it could continue to dump oil into the ocean for another 100 years.

It all started in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf of Mexico, passing about 62 miles from a fixed offshore platform owned by Taylor Energy. It struck as a Category 3 hurricane, bringing 145mph winds and 70ft ocean swells which caused an underwater landslide, eventually capsizing the rig and moving it approximately 560ft forward until she is buried under 150 feet of mud at the bottom of the ocean. At least 28 oil wells have been discovered.

Taylor Energy reported the leaks and attempted to stop them, but were unsuccessful.

Six years have passed.

Wells continued to leak into the Gulf.

Although the abandoned wells were spilling around 1,000 gallons of oil a day, the public was largely unaware of the case. It wasn’t until 2010 that those monitoring the Deep water horizon oil spill noticed a lingering sheen staining the water where the Taylor Energy rig once stood. This drew public attention to the spill and renewed cleanup efforts, but further attempts to plug the wells were unsuccessful.

Nine more years passed. Finally, in the spring of 2019, a complex underwater containment system was installed to siphon and capture the oil that was spilling from the wells. The system was the first of its kind. It was the brainchild of the US Coast Guard and a team of top engineers determined to find a way to stem the spill that had been polluting the Gulf of Mexico for a decade and a half. The wells have not been fully decommissioned and capped, but the oil is now captured and contained.

In total, the Taylor Energy spill is estimated to have released up to 140 million gallons of oil to date.

Not all stories of abandoned and orphaned offshore wells sound like those of Taylor Energy. Some have been downgraded for the better, while others are long forgotten and pose unknown risks to the environment and marine life. Inadequate records and limited monitoring made it difficult to accurately track the number of abandoned wells and whether they were properly plugged.

According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, however, more than 32,000 of the 55,000 offshore wells across the 10.9 million acre outer continental shelf are abandoned or orphaned.

But why? How can tens of thousands of oil wells remain in the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans without requiring further attention or responsibility?

Offshore wells are abandoned when they don’t produce enough to offset operating costs. Some wells never produce at all. Some are “drying up”, their accessible reserves exhausted according to current extraction methods. Some of these wells are temporarily abandoned, with the idea or promise that the owner will return to attempt extraction in the future. Yet the average duration since the last drilling of the 3,364 “temporarily” abandoned wells on the outer continental shelf is 38 years.

Wells are considered orphan when they have no owner. Offshore oil wells are often orphaned if the companies that own and operate them go bankrupt or close for some other reason. Without a known owner, orphan wells present significant challenges when it comes to shutting them down and decommissioning them.

Dismantling an offshore well is expensive and difficult. In the case of the Taylor Energy oil spill, worker safety and environmental concerns halted attempts to dredge the seabed and access the wells, which were about 500 feet below the surface. The state has already spent about $64 million dismantling the Holly rig off the coast of California, a cost the state must now bear after rig owner Venoco filed its balance sheet. The total cost of dismantling the platform is expected to reach approximately $350 million. California is also bearing the cost of dismantling orphan wells on the Rincon Pier after their operator filed for bankruptcy. The state has allocated more than $50 million in funding for the project so far.

Offshore operators are expected to post bonds to cover the costs of decommissioning abandoned or orphan wells. Yet these are unlikely to cover the full extent of the problem. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, the Department of the Interior held $2.9 billion in bonds in 2015, but decommissioning commitments reached $39.9 billion that year. only in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ideally, offshore companies would be held responsible for cleaning up their messes.

This includes proper dismantling of wells.

In March 2022, the US Department of Justice reached a $476.3 million settlement with Taylor Energy regarding the company’s 18-year oil spill. $432 million will be transferred to the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management to cover the costs of final plugging of wells on the seabed. All of Taylor Energy’s remaining assets will be distributed as follows: $12.8 million will go to the U.S. Coast Guard as reimbursement for past expenses, $15 million will be paid as a civil penalty under the Clean Water Act and 16 $.5 million will be donated to Natural Resource Damage and used for local natural resource restoration projects.

It’s a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. Stricter regulations and better enforcement of existing offshore policies, along with more funds allocated to well decommissioning and cleanup efforts, will be needed to have a real impact on the 32,000 abandoned and orphaned offshore wells that litter our oceans and guarantee that they pose no additional risk. to our planet and our people.


Arnold & Itkin is a maritime law firm that has been representing offshore workers since 2004. The firm’s attorneys have won unparalleled victories in their practice areas, setting and breaking national records for verdicts and settlements that change the lives they have achieved for their clients. . The company represented a third of the Deep water horizon the crew after the rig explosion in 2010, the widows of Lighthouse crew members who were lost when the ship sank in Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, and countless others who needed help after the worst injuries and losses. The company will continue to fight for what is right. No matter what.

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