Experts to ask Congress for more offshore oil oversight as California cleanup continues

Nearly two weeks after a pipeline ruptured and leaked as much as 131,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, environmental policy experts will testify before Congress on Thursday, urging lawmakers to require more federal oversight of aging and abandoned offshore oil platforms and pipelines.

The recent spill off the Orange County coast has put the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure under new scrutiny. Some California lawmakers and environmental advocates have called for a prohibition on all future offshore drilling, while others want to extend a ban to companies already operating in state and federal waters.

Experts who will testify before the House subcommittee on energy and mineral resources are expected to ask Congress to create a financial incentive for energy companies to plug their old wells and dismantle existing platforms and pipelines so taxpayers aren’t stuck with the bill.

Of the 23 platforms that were installed between the late 1960s and early 1990s in federal waters off Southern California, the Interior Department has scheduled eight to be decommissioned in the coming years. But there are no plans to address the remainder, including Elly, the decades-old platform linked to the recent spill and operated by Long Beach-based Beta Operating Co.


Advocates and lawmakers fear that if this fossil fuel infrastructure is left for years, larger oil companies will sell their aging assets to smaller ones that don’t have the money or inclination to either invest in upgrades or pay for the removal of platforms and pipelines. Some companies have already filed for bankruptcy. The owner of the ruptured pipeline, Memorial Production Partners, filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 in early 2017. It emerged several months later as Amplify Energy.

“Leaving oil and gas infrastructure in place can be a ticking time bomb, with the potential for damage from storms, accidents and corrosion all leading to more costly decommissioning efforts,” wrote Rob Schuwerk, executive director of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, in prepared testimony. The nonprofit think tank studies clean energy and greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry.

The trend of declining oil production and aging or abandoned infrastructure is also a major problem in the Gulf of Mexico, where government estimates suggest known oil reserves are likely to be depleted by the middle of this century. According to a 2018 study by Louisiana State University researchers, nearly 1,000 existing platforms and other structures may need to be removed from the gulf by 2027.

Federal regulations require companies to remove pipelines no longer in use from the seafloor. Yet, for reasons that are unclear, Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has allowed the industry to leave the vast majority in place. In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office estimated there are 18,000 miles of inactive pipelines in the gulf. The federal government does not know where all of them are or which companies are responsible for them.

Donald Boesch, president emeritus of University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, and a commissioner on the presidential panel created to study the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, is also expected to testify at Thursday’s hearing. In his prepared remarks, he wrote that this month’s pipeline leak in California raised questions about the bureau’s policy of relying on monthly surface observations and pressure sensors to detect leaks. Some 15 hours passed from when sensors detected a pressure drop before the spill was reported.

“The nation sorely needs a smart strategy for this end game, one that both limits climate change and minimizes the deleterious impacts and risks of the residual infrastructure,” Boesch wrote.

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