Federal officials aren’t adequately monitoring the integrity of 8,600 miles of active oil-and-gas pipelines on the Gulf of Mexico’s seafloor, and for decades have allowed the industry to abandon old pipelines with little oversight, a new report to Congress shows. The Government Accountability Office report faults the Interior Department’s offshore oil-safety regulator’s reliance on surface observations and pressure sensors, rather than subsea inspection, to monitor for leaks.
The report urges the regulator, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), to resume work on a long-stalled update to pipeline rules. BSEE currently requires monthly inspections of pipeline routes in the Gulf by helicopter or marine vessel, to look for oil sheens or gas bubbles on the surface to determine whether a pipeline is leaking. By comparison, the bureau’s Pacific office requires subsea pipeline inspections, in part because of seismic concerns, on its much smaller network of 200 miles of active pipelines.
The GAO also found that BSEE and its predecessors allowed the oil industry to leave thousands of miles of decommissioned pipelines on the seafloor rather than incur the cost of raising them back to the surface. Federal regulations allow BSEE to permit operators to decommission pipelines in place, cleaning and burying them in the seabed. The GAO found that the agency doesn’t ensure standards are followed, even as it allowed 97% of the miles of decommissioned pipelines taken out of active use in the Gulf since the 1960s—nearly 18,000 miles—to remain in place.
BSEE also has failed to fully consider whether decommissioned pipelines represent a hazard to navigation and commercial fishing, like trawlers that can be damaged by snagging equipment on undersea pipelines, the report said. Eighty-nine trawlers reported damage from snagging on oil-and-gas equipment between 2015 and 2019, the report found.
BSEE’s failure to inspect decommissioned pipelines also means officials don’t have a complete record of which equipment has been properly cleaned and buried, or whether hurricanes and underwater landslides have moved buried pipelines, potentially creating navigation hazards and environmental damage. A buried 9-mile pipeline segment was swept 4,000 feet out of place by Hurricane Katrina, the report said.
BSEE also allowed oil producers to leave in place some 250 decommissioned “umbilical lines” that carry electricity and hydraulic power to subsea equipment, the report said, over objections of some Interior officials who were concerned that these lines often contain hazardous chemicals that could leak over time as the equipment degrades.
Excerpt from Ted Mann, U.S. Needs to Better Monitor Oil, Gas Pipelines in Gulf of Mexico, Report Says, WSJ, Apr. 19, 2021