Leading environmental groups and a U.S. senator on Wednesday called on the government to pay closer attention to more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico and take action to keep them from leaking even more crude into water already tainted by the massive BP spill.
The calls for action follow an Associated Press 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.
Melanie Duchin, a spokeswoman with Greenpeace, said she was "shell-shocked" by the report and upset that the government wasn't "doing a thing to make sure they weren't leaking."
Of 50,000 wells drilled over the past six decades in the Gulf, 23,500 have been permanently abandoned. Another 3,500 are classified as temporarily abandoned, but 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 over the decades and the metal casing that lines the wells can rust. Even depleted production wells can repressurize over time and spill oil if their sealings fail.
Regulators at the Minerals Management Service, recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, have routinely been accepting industry reports on well closures without inspecting the work. And no one -- in industry or government -- has been conducting checks on wells abandoned for years.
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 ultimately 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," 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 over the years.
Melinda Pierce, deputy director of national campaigns for the Sierra Club, said the AP investigation shows that the government must do more to prevent another oil 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.
Elgie Holstein, senior director of strategic planning for the Environmental Defense Fund's land, water and wildlife program, said "it certainly makes sense" for the government to periodically inspect abandoned wells to ensure that they have been properly plugged. Holstein is a former U.S. Energy Department official.
After repeated requests, federal regulators acknowledged Tuesday that some abandoned wells have leaked in the past. However, a government petroleum engineer, Eric Kazanis, said abandoned wells aren't considered a risk and aren't "supposed to leak."
Greg Rosenstein, a vice president at Superior Energy Services, a New Orleans company that specializes in this work for offshore wells, maintained that properly plugged wells "do not normally degrade."
When pressed, though, he acknowledged: "There have been a few occasions where wells that have been plugged have to be entered and re-plugged."