Tag Archives: Gulf of Mexico oil spill

The Trillion Dollar Mess: Taking Down the Oil Infrastructure

Some of the world’s largest oil companies have been ordered to pay part of a $7.2 billion tab to retire hundreds of aging wells in the Gulf of Mexico that they used to own, capping a case that legal experts say is a harbinger of future battles over cleanup costs.

A federal judge ruled last month that Fieldwood Energy a privately held company that currently controls the old wells and had sought bankruptcy protection, could pass on hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental liabilities to prior owners and insurers of the wells as part of its reorganization plan. Exxon Mobil,  BP, Hess , Royal Dutch Shell and insurance companies had objected to the plan. The dispute, litigated for months in federal bankruptcy court in Houston, centered over who should bear the enormous costs of capping and abandoning wells, primarily in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico where an oil spill could wreak havoc. The companies could still appeal the ruling…

Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy said that the expenses to decommission oil-and-gas infrastructure world-wide will in the trillions of dollars. “Who bears the costs?” he said. “There will be people who want to pass the buck.”

BP and Shell have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by 2050. To accomplish that, those companies will have to sell off some oil-and-gas wells to get their related emissions off their books, say energy analysts. But such asset sales present huge risks for big oil companies because many of the buyers are smaller, privately held firms, like Fieldwood, which may not have the financial wherewithal to bear cleanup costs, Ms. Usoro said. This was Fieldwood’s second bankruptcy in two years.

These smaller companies buy the wells for pennies on the dollar and assume the cleanup expenses in the hope that they can reduce the assets’ cost structure and squeeze out the remaining barrels of oil profitably. “I’ve always questioned this business model,” said Ms. Usoro. “Are these guys able to take care of the end of life?”

Excerpts Christopher M. Matthews, Oil Companies Are Ordered to Help Cover $7.2 Billion Cleanup Bill in Gulf of Mexico, WSJ, July 6, 2021

The Leaky Oil Pipelines on Our Seafloor

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

Crude Oil in the Bile of Fish: BP Horizon Oil Spill

Since the 2010 BP oil spill, marine scientists at the University of South Florida (USF) have sampled more than 2,500 individual fish representing 91 species from 359 locations across the Gulf of Mexico and found evidence of oil exposure in all of them, including some of the most popular types of seafood. The highest levels were detected in yellowfin tuna, golden tilefish and red drum. The study represents the first comprehensive, Gulf-wide survey of oil pollution launched in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Over the last decade have examined the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the most toxic chemical component of crude oil, in the bile of the fish. Bile is produced by the liver to aid in digestion, but it also acts as storage for waste products.

“We were quite surprised that among the most contaminated species was the fast-swimming yellowfin tuna as they are not found at the bottom of the ocean where most oil pollution in the Gulf occurs,” said lead author Erin Pulster…Pulster says it makes sense that tilefish have higher concentrations of PAH because they live their entire adult lives in and around burrows they excavate on the seafloor and PAHs are routinely found in Gulf sediment. However, their exposure has been increasing over time, as well as in other species, including groupers, some of Florida’s most economically important fish. …

Oil pollution hot spots were also found off major population centers, such as Tampa Bay, suggesting that runoff from urbanized coasts may play a role in the higher concentrations of PAHs. Other sources include chornic low-level releases from oil and gas platforms, fuel from boats and airplanes and even natural oil seeps — fractures on the seafloor that can ooze the equivalent of millions of barrels of oil per year.

Excerpts from Firste Gulf of Mexico-wide survey of oil pollution completed 10 years after Deepwater Horizon, Science Daily, Apr. 15, 2020

Anadarko Fined for Gulf of Mexico Spill

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. was ordered to pay almost $160 million for its role as part-owner of the doomed Gulf of Mexico well that in 2010 caused the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.  The fine was the last big uncertainty hanging over Anadarko from the disaster. The order on November 30, 2015  comes after the government told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans that the company should be fined more than $1 billion for its role in the well’s blowout, which killed 11 people and spewed oil for almost three months. Anadarko, which had a 25 percent stake in the Macondo well, argued it shouldn’t be required to pay fines simply because it owned part of the well, as the accident wasn’t its fault. In 2014, The Woodlands, Texas-based company set aside $90 million for the case when it offered to settle for that amount.

Barbier said the fine reflected his finding that Anadarko didn’t have a role in causing the spill. Under the law, he could have imposed as much as $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled, or about $3.5 billion.  The fine is “only 4.5 percent of the maximum penalty, and therefore on the low end of the spectrum,” Barbier said in his order. “The court finds this amount strikes the appropriate balance between Anadarko’s lack of culpability and the extreme seriousness of this spill.”

Barbier rejected Anadarko’s argument that a heavy penalty could cause minority partners to seek a larger role in offshore operations, which might complicate safety and drilling decisions. “A penalty of this size might encourage non-operators to avoid investing with careless operators,” he said.  The company said it’s pleased the penalty is less than what the government sought and that it’s reviewing whether to file an appeal. “While we respect the court’s decision, we continue to believe that penalizing a non-operator for events beyond its control is inconsistent with the intent of the Clean Water Act,” Anadarko said in a statement posted on its website.

David Berg, a Houston attorney who has tracked the oil spill litigation and often sues polluters on behalf of municipalities, said given the damage from the spill, the fine is “not a slap on the wrist; it’s a tongue kiss from the judge.”  David Uhlmann, former head of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes unit, said the fine is “too small to be an effective deterrent.” It “will not have a significant effect on a company worth approximately $30 billion,” said Uhlmann, now a University of Michigan law professor.

The professor said Anadarko wasn’t a silent partner in its dealings with BP Plc, which owned 65 percent of the well.  “Anadarko urged BP to continue drilling deeper, even when BP wanted to stop,” he said. “Yet the judge refused to consider evidence of Anadarko’s risky behavior, which may explain the small size of Anadarko’s fine.”

Excerpt from Anadarko Ordered to Pay $159.5 Million for 2010 Gulf Spill, Bloomberg Business, Nov. 30, 2015

Gross Negligence: Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

BP wants its money back — hundreds of millions of dollars of it — but a federal judge said Wednesday (Sept 24. 2014) that the oil giant must stand by the agreement it made with the companies it compensated for losses blamed on the 2010 Gulf oil spill.BP argued that a flawed funding formula enabled nearly 800 businesses to overestimate their spill-related claims.

One construction company hundreds of miles from the coast received $13.2 million, but deserved $4.8 million at most, BP said. Another company selling “animals and animal skins” was overpaid about $14 million, and about 50 others shouldn’t have been paid at all, the company said.  About 150 claimants should return a total of $185 million, and overpayments to the rest haven’t been calculated, attorney Kevin Downey argued.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier was not persuaded, thwarting BP’s latest attempt to control potential liabilities now approaching $50 billion.  The judge agreed weeks ago to change the compensation formula for any future payments, but ruled that a deal is a deal when it comes to the money BP has already paid out. Under that deal, claimants agreed not to sue, and BP agreed that no future court action could change their payments….

Barbier said he would rule later on the issue of compensation for cleanup workers whose chronic medical problems weren’t diagnosed until after the deal’s cutoff date of April 16, 2012. The settlement entitled cleanup workers with chronic conditions including rashes and breathing problems to receive up to $60,700 if the problems first surfaced within days of their cleanup work…

BP’s closing share price was $50.20 the day of the explosion, and fell to $22.80 in June 2010, before the well was capped. Shareholders returned after BP set aside $42 billion to cover its liabilities, reassured the financial damage was contained.  That’s no longer so clear: The judge’s ruling this month that BP showed gross negligence and willful misconduct added a new level of uncertainty around BP’s spill-related expenses, reducing its market value by $9 billion in a single day.,,BP’s total potential liabilities now include up to $18 billion in fines and penalties that could be imposed for violating federal pollution laws, and more than $27 billion BP says it has already paid to restore the coast and settle damage claims.

JANET MCCONNAUGHEY and JONATHAN FAHEY,Businesses Won’t Have to Return BP Spill, Associated Press, Sept. 24, 2014

 

Crying over Spilled Oil; BP Deepwater Horizon

After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing a lake of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP knew it would be punished severely. So far, the British oil firm has set aside $42 billion to pay fines, compensate victims and clean up the mess. Of this, some $36 billion has already been paid out or earmarked. America has also temporarily barred the company from bidding for federal contracts.

In all, BP has shelled out $14 billion to stop the spill and restore the coast to the way it was. It has paid out or earmarked $17.5 billion to compensate individuals and small businesses, plus another $4 billion to settle criminal charges with the Department of Justice. It has also set aside $3.5 billion to pay penalties for oil leaks under America’s Clean Water Act.  These have yet to be determined. A civil trial, set to begin on February 25th in New Orleans, will apportion blame for the accident, determine how much oil gushed out and apply financial penalties. The federal government is demanding $21 billion in compensation for spilt oil. To get that much, it must prove BP was “grossly negligent”. It must also persuade the court to accept its estimate of the size of the leak, rather than

As if that were not enough, BP’s annual results, released on February 5th, harboured another nasty surprise. Tucked away on page 42 were details of hefty new claims against the oil giant. Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana are demanding $34 billion for economic losses and property damage. These mainly relate to tax revenues allegedly lost as a result of disruptions to businesses, says BP.  The oil giant knew that a bill was in the post: a three-year statute of limitations will soon expire. However, it was not expecting the bill to be so big. BP disputes the way the sum has been calculated and is ready to fight the claims in court. It reckons that the states will have a tough job substantiating their calculations of forgone taxes.

Both claims seem likely to be settled out of court…BP would far rather end the matter quickly and get on with its business. The uncertainty over the final bill is weighing down its share price. And its sheer size is daunting. If all the claims against it are upheld, BP’s total bill will amount to $90 billion or so. By way of comparison, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was ordered to pay reparations of $52 billion ($88 billion in today’s money) for invading Kuwait.

One reason why a settlement has proved elusive is that the case is so complex. It involves three pieces of legislation and several layers of federal, state and local government with precious little co-ordination between them. For example, BP notes that 11 tiny Louisiana parishes have made a separate claim for damage to local wildlife. BP’s woes are not over.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster: Spills and bills, Economist, Feb. 9, 2013, at 66

BP: Culture of Corporate Recklessness

The Obama administration has accused BP of gross negligence and willful misconduct in causing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. In a new court filing, the Department of Justice appears bent on blaming BP for the worst oil disaster in U.S. history.  The court document blasts BP’s leadership in no uncertain terms. Referring to “A Culture of Corporate Recklessness,” it states that “The behaviour, words and actions of these BP executives would not have been tolerated in a middling size company manufacturing dry goods for sale in a suburban mall.” It criticizes “the utter lack of any semblance of investigation of the systemic management causes deeply implicating the corporate managers and leadership who caused and allowed the rig-based mechanical causes to fester and ultimately explode in a fireball of death, personal injury, economic catastrophe, and environmental devastation.”

Referring to a “negative pressure test” performed by BP and Transocean hours before the blowout, the report states, “That such a simple, yet fundamental safety-critical test could have been so stunningly, blindingly botched in so many ways, by so many people, demonstrates gross negligence.”  The designation of “gross negligence” under the Clean Water Act, is an important distinction because it would mean the company could face $21 billion in civil damages alone—almost quadruple the penalty if “gross negligence” is not confirmed. BP also faces criminal charges.

The case may not go to trial, which is scheduled to begin January 14. Both sides are negotiating to reach a settlement to resolve both civil and criminal violations.  The Justice Department reportedly sought a $25 billion agreement from BP, but now may be willing to settle for $15 billion.

Justice Dept. Accuses BP of “Gross Negligence” over Gulf Oil Spill, AllGov.com, Sept. 7, 2012