WASHINGTON – Federal officials are not adequately monitoring the integrity of 8,600 miles of active oil and gas pipelines on the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico and have allowed the industry to let old pipelines sit for decades without much oversight, according to a new report to Congress.
The Government Accountability Office reports shortcomings at the Interior Department’s Marine Oil Safety Regulatory Agency, which relies more on surface observations and pressure sensors than underwater inspections to monitor oil spills.
According to the report, agency staff recognize that these methods are unable to detect the slow release of oil from the pipeline over long periods of time, particularly in deepwater areas where most oil production occurs.
The report calls on the regulatory agency, the Office of Safety and Environmental Protection, to resume work to update pipeline regulations, which is long overdue.
The BSEE is now demanding a monthly inspection of the pipeline’s route in the Persian Gulf, by helicopter or boat, to look for oil slicks or gas bubbles on the surface to determine if there is a gas leak in the pipeline.
By comparison, the Pacific Office requires inspections of subsea pipelines, in part because of seismic concerns, on a much smaller network of 200 miles of active pipelines.
In an interview with GAO, BEWE officials acknowledged that surface observations are generally not reliable indicators of a pipeline leak because dispersed oil and gas leaks can spread far from the source, particularly in deep water.
Although BSEE and industry groups have discussed ways to improve underwater leak detection systems, the report calls for a federal rule mandating such monitoring.
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BSEE officials told us that the industry is largely open to improving leak detection, but noted that the agency cannot force industry to adopt leak detection measures that are not included in its regulations, the report said.
An Interior Department official said in a response to the GAO report that the department generally agreed with the report’s findings and was responding to the GAO’s call for new regulations for offshore pipeline construction.
GAO also noted that BSEE and its predecessors allowed the oil industry to leave thousands of miles of pipelines on the ocean floor instead of paying the cost to bring them to the surface.
Under federal regulations, OEP may authorize operators to decommission, clean, and bury pipelines on the seabed. The GAO found that the agency failed to enforce the standards even though it had abandoned 97% of the miles of abandoned pipelines in the Gulf since the 1960s – a total of 18,000 miles.
The EEMO also did not fully assess whether abandoned pipelines pose a risk to, for example, shipping and commercial fishing. B. that can be damaged by equipment connected to undersea pipelines, the report said. Eighty-nine trawlers reported damage from stuck oil and gas equipment between 2015 and 2019, the report said.
The BSEE’s failure to inspect abandoned pipelines also means that officials do not have a complete record of what equipment has been properly cleaned and buried and whether storms and underwater landslides have moved underground pipelines, which can pose a hazard to navigation and the environment.
The 9-mile stretch of buried pipeline was shifted 4,000 feet by Hurricane Katrina, the report said.
The business model of drilling into our oceans to make a quick buck and making the public pay for the cleanup is coming to an end.
– Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The BSEE also allowed oil producers to abandon about 250 decommissioned umbilicals, which supply power and hydraulics to subsea equipment, the report said, despite objections from some Interior Ministry officials who were concerned that the pipes often contained dangerous chemicals that could start leaking over time as the equipment wears out.
BSEE officials told GAO that they approved the investments based on guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration, which has championed the oil industry.
(D., Calif.) of the House Natural Resources Committee has scheduled legislation for Monday that would require the BSEE to conduct an underwater inspection and environmental impact assessment of keeping the old pipeline infrastructure in place. The purpose is to direct OCSEC to collect a fee from pipeline operators to cover decommissioning and cleanup costs.
The business model of prematurely drilling into our oceans and saddling the public with a cleanup bill is coming to an end, the chairman of the Natural Resources Commission said.
(D., Ariz.) stated. Our oceans are there for all of us, not just the oil and gas companies.
(D., Calif.), another committee member who joined Grijalva in calling for the GAO investigation, said the report shows that the economic model used by the oil and gas industry is based on maximizing short-term profits at the expense of long-term costs to the environment and taxpayers.
The current BSEE regulations for pipelines were published in 1988. In 2007, its predecessor, the BSEE, submitted a rule proposal to update it in light of decades of technological change, including the proliferation of deepwater pipelines, which were not then in use. But the efforts stalled, and after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, the agency’s attention shifted to updating safety regulations related to drilling procedures, the GAO said.
Documents reviewed by GAO show that BEWE officials urged the then director to
in December 2019, the agency said it would come up with a new proposed pipeline rule within a month. The proposal has not yet been published.
Email Ted Mann at [email protected].
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