More than a week after Ida hit the Gulf of Mexico, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the hurricane made a huge mess of the oil and gas activities there. The government is investigating hundreds of reports of oil spills in the Gulf following the storm—and some of these spills may have come from the enormous network of old and abandoned pipelines that the government has allowed companies to leave on the ocean floor.
In the days since Ida made landfall in Louisiana at the end of August, the Coast Guard has been conducting flights over the Gulf, using satellite imagery to search for spills. Nearly 90% of the Gulf’s oil and gas infrastructure is still offline since the storm hit on August 29. It’s difficult to get a sense of just how much oil has been spilled and from which facilities as well as who is responsible; the Coast Guard said Monday it is investigating close to 350 reports of spills in the Gulf following Ida.
One of the biggest spills may have been caused by a pipeline no longer in use—a phenomenon that’s a huge problem in the Gulf. On Wednesday, images captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—which also show the catastrophic damage wrought by Ida on coastal communities—showed a streak of oil at least 10 miles long in the waters 2 miles off of Port Fourchon, one of the country’s most important oil and gas hubs and the place where Ida first made landfall. After the AP reported on the images, the spill was confirmed Thursday by a special EPA plane that made a survey over it and other industrial areas.
This spill was initially linked to activities from Houston-based Talos Energy, which had leased an area near the spill site but ceased operations in 2017. Divers working on the cleanup site said Monday that the spill appears to have sprung from a 1-foot pipeline that broke off the ocean floor in shallow water, about 34 feet (10 meters) underwater. Two other, smaller pipelines in the area were also “open and apparently abandoned,” the AP reported.
In a release, Talos Energy, which has hired a company to clean up the spill, said that it had removed all its infrastructure in 2019, that its equipment was not responsible, and that the leak appears to have come from an abandoned pipeline in a nearby leasing area. The company said it is “working closely with the [Coast Guard] and Louisiana state officials to identify the owner of the line and is continuing to collaborate with [Coast Guard] and other state and federal officials to receive approval to initiate permanent repair of the line.”
Regulations say that companies that leave fossil fuel infrastructure on federally owned seafloor are responsible for fully cleaning up their messes—decommissioning pipelines, removing infrastructure, making sure the wells are shut off—when they’re done. But a loophole in the rules allows for some pipelines to be decommissioned-in-place—a loophole that has all but become the law. A report released in April by the Government Accountability Office found that a whopping 97% of ocean pipelines built since the 1960s had been abandoned, even though they may still contain oil or other hazardous materials. All those pipelines add up to an enormous 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers) of abandoned, unused pipelines—like those that may have been responsible for the spill post-Ida—littering the floor of the Gulf.
“People who do diving in the Gulf—they say it’s just a shitshow down there,” said Megan Milliken Biven, an energy policy researcher and former employee at the Bureau of Ocean Management under President Obama, where she first became aware of the issue of abandoned pipelines. “Just lots of shit—old shit, new shit, just shit.”
The same Government Accountability Office report found that the roughly 8,600 miles (14,000 kilometers) of active oil and gas pipelines are also not being sufficiently monitored for problems. Many of the government’s favorite monitoring techniques—like the surveys conducted over the Gulf in the wake of Ida—lean heavily on surface observations, but the slow-moving nature of some leaks and the way ocean currents can carry oil for miles makes it “difficult, if not impossible, to associate [sheens and bubbles] with a specific pipeline,” the report found. “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.”
In light of this report, preventing spills like the one that’s happening now in the Gulf is almost frustratingly easy: The government simply needs to follow its own standards and ask more oil companies to clean up their messes after they’re done.
“The agreement between the operator and the federal government is: remove everything,” Biven said. “That’s what all the regs pretty much say.” Biven explained that the current status quo of allowing pipelines to remain on the ocean floor has been “mutated” into official policy—one that the Department of Interior could easily reorient without any change in law. “Deb Haaland could say today, we need to remove these [pipelines] because they’re hazardous... The benefit of that is you wouldn’t have events like this.”