Jul 8, 2010

Oil is a Dirty Business

-More than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lurk in the hard rock beneath the Gulf an environmental minefield that has been ignored for decades. No one — not industry, not government — is checking to see if they are leaking, an Associated Press investigation shows.

The AP investigation uncovered particular concern with 3,500 of the neglected wells — those characterized in federal government records as "temporarily abandoned."

There's ample reason for worry about all permanently and temporarily abandoned wells — history shows that at least on land, they often leak. Wells are sealed underwater much as they are on land. And wells on land and in water face similar risk of failure. Plus, records reviewed by the AP show that some offshore wells have failed.

Experts say such wells can repressurize, much like a dormant volcano can awaken. And years of exposure to sea water and underground pressure can cause cementing and piping to corrode and weaken.

Despite the likelihood of leaks large and small, though, abandoned wells are typically not inspected by industry or government.

Oil company representatives insist that the seal on a correctly plugged offshore well will last virtually forever.

State officials estimate that tens of thousands are badly sealed, either because they predate strict regulation or because the operating companies violated rules. Texas alone has plugged more than 21,000 abandoned wells to control pollution, according to the state comptroller's office.

Offshore, but in state waters, California has resealed scores of its abandoned wells since the 1980s.
In deeper federal waters, though — despite the similarities in how such wells are constructed and how sealing procedures can fail — the official policy is out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service — the regulatory agency recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — relies on rules that have few real teeth.

Unlike California regulators, MMS doesn't typically inspect the job, instead relying on the paperwork.

We somehow need to add externality costs such as the pollution tail mentioned above to the cost of gas at the pump. Every time I am passed on the road by a single person driving an SUV at a speed much over the limit, I think if these external costs of living the oil lifestyle we live were added to the cost the SUV would not be viable transportation due to it's high cost of operation.

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