Abandoned Oil Pipelines Are a Disaster Waiting to Happen in the Gulf of Mexico

Abandoned Oil Pipelines Are a Disaster Waiting to Happen in the Gulf of Mexico
A rig and supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. (Photo: Gerald Herbert, AP)

Seems like no one is keeping an eye on what polluters are doing in the Gulf of Mexico. For decades, the U.S. federal government has allowed the oil and gas industry to abandon almost all ocean pipeline infrastructure it no longer uses without further cleanup — and barely monitors the safety of active pipelines still in use today, a new watchdog report found.

The report was released Monday by the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, a nonpartisan arm of the federal government tasked with reviewing spending, policies, and procedures for various agencies and departments. The numbers are pretty damning. According to GAO, there are more than 18,000 miles (28,968 kilometers) of abandoned, unused pipelines running along the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico alone. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the agency in the U.S. Interior Department responsible for underwater pipeline safety, technically requires pipeline operators to remove the pipelines after they are retired, but allows for some pipelines to be decommissioned-in-place — which, the report found, it has done for 97% of the pipelines built since the 1960s.

Even though these pipelines could still contain oil or other chemicals and pose a hazard to both the environment and human ocean activity — between 2015 and 2019, almost 90 trawlers reported getting stuck on old pipelines — the report found that BSEE doesn’t monitor the environment where the trashed pipelines are left, or require that the owners clean the pipelines left behind. The agency, in fact, does “not observe any pipeline decommissioning activities, inspect pipelines after their decommissioning, or verify most of the pipeline decommissioning evidence submitted,” the GAO found. Sounds great!

The report came out the day before the 11th anniversary of the disastrous BP disaster in the Gulf, where an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, caused partially by faulty safety equipment, killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Given the anniversary, the report’s conclusions that the government is essentially not paying attention to what the industry is doing underwater is especially worrisome.

Megan Milliken Biven, an energy policy researcher, said that she wasn’t surprised by these huge numbers of abandoned pipelines. From 2010 to 2018, Milliken Biven worked at the Bureau of Ocean Management, an agency under the Department of the Interior that works closely with BSEE. While working there, she came across the issue of abandoned ocean pipelines.

“I was like, holy shit, this is a big thing,” she said. “And there were a lot of people in the agency like, ‘holy shit, this is a big thing.’ But it was just one of those things that was like, ‘well, we’ve always done it this way.’”

Doing things this way has created incredibly dangerous conditions for the Gulf’s ecosystems already hit hard by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill,. These old pipelines can hold up new conservation measures as well. In 2020, officials in Louisiana had to add $US2.2 ($3) million to a restoration project on a barrier island after they discovered a tangle of buried, abandoned oil and gas pipelines.

“The pipelines can get pushed around by wind,” said Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Director at the Centre for Biological Diversity. “They’re out there damaging fish habitat. It’s unclear if they were ever cleaned of oil and stuff like that, so they could be leaking toxins into the environment.”

Meanwhile, there are also still 3,840 kilometres of active oil and gas pipelines in the Gulf that operate, the report found, with minimal and inadequate government oversight. The Interior Department, the GAO said, relies heavily on monthly ocean surface observations, conducted by helicopter or by boat, to patrol for oil sheens or gas bubbles to make sure there aren’t leaks and that everything is functioning as it should.

But pipelines or wells that are leaking don’t always send oil to the surface, and when they do, ocean currents can carry the material miles away from the actual source of the problem. This makes it “difficult, if not impossible, to associate [sheens and bubbles] with a specific pipeline,” Interior officials told the GAO. The report goes on to note that “relying on surface observations could allow leaks — particularly slow leaks in deep water that are dispersed by currents — to go undetected for extended periods of time.” With 44% of these active pipelines were installed before 2000, the risk of ruptures is increasing.

“There’s studies out there saying that after 20 years, the probability of failure increases rapidly,” Sakashita said. “What we’re looking at is old, corroded pipelines that are still out there and active and could have oil spills.”

One of the most frustrating things about the report is how easy some of the safety solutions to these problems are — and how the government is lagging behind in implementing them, or just not taking any action at all. For instance, if the government began simply enforcing its own rule that pipelines be removed from the ocean floor rather than allow nearly all pipelines to be decommissioned in place, it would go a long way in making sure the Gulf is a safer place. Even the simplest cleanup requirement or oversight for decommissioned-in-place pipelines would be a step up from the basically zero enforcement that goes on today.

There could be some legal avenues to pursue getting pipeline companies to clean up their messes. Miliken Biven said she thinks that the regulations would allow a U.S. state or NGO to sue the pipeline’s original operator if the pipeline “constitutes an obstruction” — especially in states like Louisiana and Texas that may have seen conservation project costs increase because of abandoned pipelines or want to start an offshore wind industry that would be hampered by old pipelines.

When asked if the Centre for Biological Diversity was considering filing any suits on these grounds, Sakashita said the group is “looking into our legal options to require better enforcement and removal of the pipelines.”

The abandoned pipelines also present a big opportunity for the government to create remediation jobs. A movement is growing on land to recruit out-of-work fossil fuel workers to clean up the millions of abandoned oil wells littering the country. President Joe Biden set aside $US16 ($21) billion in his jobs plan for “union jobs” to clean up wells and mines. BSEE already has a policy requiring the removal of abandoned rigs and platforms, and Miliken Biven said mimicking that policy for abandoned pipelines could create jobs.

“All the workers who are sitting dockside — that would be a huge boon,” she said.