Image via the AP
The BP Gulf spill has no doubt brought plenty of scrutiny and debate to the practice of offshore drilling. But it still manages to be shocking when a figure like this emerges: according to an AP report, there are a staggering 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells throughout the Gulf of Mexico -- and nobody is sure whether or not they're continuously leaking oil or not.The AP reports that
More than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lurk in the hard rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico, 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 report also raises a concern that there are some 3,500 "temporarily abandoned" wells that face less strict regulations and are often plugged less thoroughly. And 1,000 of those were left unfinished, and are at a particular risk for leaking. But suffice to say that all of these abandoned wells are of significant concern: As the report reveals, no government agency or oil company really has a very good idea whether or not many are leaking oil into the Gulf.
The oldest of these wells were abandoned in the late 1940s, raising the prospect that many deteriorating sealing jobs are already failing.
The now universally derided Minerals Management Service was ostensibly in charge of overseeing the abandoned wells, but the only checks it appears to have ever performed were done through examining paperwork.
The reason that this is alarming is that it's a known fact that many oil and gas wells on land begin leaking after years of exposure to environmental factors, and for other reasons like re-pressurization in the wells below the surface. These wells are often sealed the same way that those underwater are. Which means that there's plenty of room for error in the sealing process, and that old seals could very well be breaking down.
And then there's this: "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," the AP reports.
Which means, in a plausible worst case scenario, there could be tens of thousands of oil and gas wells that are leaking untold amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico as we speak. But nobody can be sure, because nobody is even bothering to keep tabs on them.