Workers use absorbent booms to collect oil and tar balls that have rolled in with the tide to land on Orange Beach, Ala. The BP spill is one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
Dave Martin / AP Enlarge
NEW ORLEANS - Leading environmental groups and a U.S. senator Wednesay called on the government to pay closer attention to more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico and keep them from leaking even more crude into water tainted by the massive BP spill.
The calls for action follow an investigation that found federal regulators do not typically inspect plugging of these offshore wells or monitor for leaks afterward. Yet tens of thousands of oil and gas wells are improperly plugged on land, and abandoned wells have sometimes leaked offshore too, state and federal regulators acknowledge.
Meanwhile, the oil drilling industry goes head to head with the Obama Administration in court Thursday over the White House's effort to suspend deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf for six months because of the BP Plc well blowout.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans is expected to rule quickly, after a rare one-hour oral argument Thursday, on whether deepwater drilling should be temporarily halted.
A federal judge, also in New Orleans, lifted the administration's moratorium in June after Hornbeck Offshore Services Inc. called it arbitrary and unfair because it was a blanket ban on all new drilling in depths below 500 feet.
Melanie Duchin, a Greenpeace spokesman, said she was "shell-shocked" by the Associated Press report and upset that government wasn't "doing a thing to make sure they weren't leaking."
Of 50,000 wells drilled in the last six decades in the Gulf, 23,500 have been abandoned. Federal regulators classify 3,500 more as "temporarily abandoned;"some have been left that way since the 1950s without the full safeguards of permanent abandonment.
Petroleum engineers say that even in properly sealed wells, the cement plugs can fail and the metal casing that lines the wells can rust. Even depleted production wells can repressurize and spill oil if the sealings fail.
Regulators at the Minerals Management Service - recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement - have been accepting industry reports on well closures without inspecting the work. And no one - in industry or government - has been checking wells that have been abandoned for years.
The investigation found warnings. For instance, the General Accountability Office, which investigates for Congress, warned in 1994 that leaks from offshore abandoned wells could cause an "environmental disaster." The report stated: "MMS does not have an overall inspection strategy for targeting its limited resources to ensuring that wells are properly plugged and abandoned."
The GAO report suggested MMS set up an inspection program, but the agency never did.
According to a 2001 study MMS commissioned, agency officials were "concerned that some abandoned oil wells in the Gulf may be leaking crude oil." Nothing happened.
The oil that has been gushing from a BP PLC well since an exploratory oil rig exploded April 20 is an uncomfortable reminder of the potential for leaking at abandoned wells. The well was being readied for temporary abandonment when it blew, setting off one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
Wells are abandoned temporarily for various reasons. In the case of the BP spill, the well was being capped until a later production phase. Oil firms may temporarily abandon wells as they re-evaluate their potential or develop a plan to overcome a drilling problem or damage from a storm. Some owners temporarily abandon wells to await a rise in oil prices.
Sen. Mark Udall (D., Colo.) sent a letter Wednesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking whether regulators have authority to do inspections of abandoned wells. He said regulators may need to check industry paperwork more carefully or inspect the work itself.
"We can't afford the leak that's now occurring. We certainly couldn't afford additional leaks in the future," Mr. Udall said.
He added that there's generally been a trust of industry, "but I think this is a case where we ought to trust - but we ought to verify."
Environmental activists called for the government to study the extent of leaking, conduct inspections, and monitor these wells.
Melinda Pierce, deputy director of Sierra Club campaigns, said the probe shows that the government must take more preventive measures to avoid another disaster.
"From exploration to drilling to the sealing of abandoned wells, the government must step up safety inspections and oversight to ensure that oil companies don't cut corners that could put our marine resources and coastal economies at risk," she said.
After repeated requests, federal regulators acknowledged Tuesday that some abandoned wells have leaked. However, a government petroleum engineer, Eric Kazanis, said abandoned wells aren't considered a risk and aren't "supposed to leak."
Oil firms say they plug correctly, and that seals on properly plugged wells should last virtually forever.
The Obama Administration appealed the lifting of the moratorium, defending the suspension as needed to provide time to probe the BP oil spill's cause and ensure other drilling rigs operate safely.
The administration seeks a stay of the judge's ruling at the hearing, set for 3 p.m. Oral arguments will be heard by a three-judge panel - two of whom were appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan and one by Democratic President Bill Clinton.
The rig drilling the BP well, Deepwater Horizon, owned by Transocean Ltd, sank after an April 20 blast that killed 11 people.
The suspension order affected new exploratory and development drilling and halted work at 33 sites, but did not include wells already producing oil.
And no matter who is the victor at the appeals court, the losing side could go to the Supreme Court. Some oil firms like Shell have said they will not resume operations until the litigation reaches a final resolution.
The drilling firms have the backing of key local leaders, including Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who have urged the ban's lifting in part because the drilling industry is worth $3 billion a year to the state's economy.