There have been offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico for 85 years. After all those decades of drilling, there are now more than 14,000 old, unplugged wells out in the water, and they are at risk of springing dangerous leaks and spills. There are now more unplugged, non-producing wells than active wells in the gulf. According to a new study, plugging all those abandoned wells could cost more than $30 billion.
Most of these wells are in federal waters and nearly 90% of them were owned at some point by one of the so-called supermajor oil companies: BP, Shell, Chevron, and Exxon. Under federal law, those companies would still be responsible for cleanup costs, even if they might have sold the wells in the past.
Oil and gas companies are legally responsible for plugging wells that are no longer in service, but such companies often go bankrupt, leaving wells orphaned and unplugged and taxpayers end up footing the bill. The 2021 trillion-dollar infrastructure bill sets aside $4.7 billion to plug orphaned wells, but that is nowhere near enough.
It may be possible to go after the supermajors to get them to pay for plugging wells in federal waters, but it will undoubtedly be a battle. In state waters, whose wells are generally in shallower locations, it is even more urgent to act because any pollution from the wells is more likely to reach shore and wreak environmental havoc.
As the world starts to transition away from fossil fuels, decades of mining and drilling in almost every corner of the world, including the oceans, has left behind the need for an immense plugging and cleanup effort.
Photo, posted July 8, 2010, courtesy of John Masson / Coast Guard via Flickr.