NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The federal agency in charge of offshore oil and gas environmental enforcement doesn’t have a strong inspection program for working pipelines and doesn’t adequately make sure companies clean and bury those no longer in use, a federal watchdog office says.
Although cleaning and pulling up unused pipelines is supposed to be the rule, federal regulators have allowed 97% of such pipelines to stay in place since the 1960s, resulting in 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers) of abandoned pipelines on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, according to a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office.
“Such a high rate of approval indicates that this is not an exception, however, but rather that decommissioning-in-place has been the norm for decades,” according to the report about the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
The bureau, which was created after the catastrophic BP oil spill in 2010, also has no clear source of money to remove abandoned pipelines that pose safety or environmental risks, according to the report.
In a brief emailed statement, the bureau said it is reviewing the report and recommendations, and expects to have new pipeline regulations open for public comments this year.
“BSEE recognizes the importance of active pipeline integrity and is continually seeking to address the safety and environmental risks associated with decommissioning,” it said.
The report said the Interior Department agreed with GAO recommendations to update regulations to ensure that active pipelines remain intact and to address safety and environmental risks of decommissioning pipelines.
“The oil industry needs to clean up its messes in the Gulf of Mexico and stop making new ones,” Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release. “This report shows how corporations profit from polluting our water and air, leaving the rest of us to pay the price.”
The report said that older pipelines are “more susceptible to damage from corrosion; mudslides; seafloor erosion; and snagging from fishing trawlers, which can result in leakage of oil and gas into the ocean. Additionally, heavy currents during hurricanes can move pipelines extensive distances, which may damage subsea habitats, impede access to sediment resources, and create navigational and trawling hazards.”
The high rate of approval for leaving abandoned pipelines in place is partly because the bureau doesn’t thoroughly account for the environmental and safety risks of doing so, the report said.
BSEE doesn’t observe as pipelines are prepared for abandonment, inspect those pipelines afterward, verify most of the evidence submitted or monitor the condition and location of abandoned pipelines, the GAO report said.
“BSEE has made limited progress in updating what it acknowledges are outdated pipeline regulations,” it said. “Without taking actions to develop, finalize, and implement updated pipeline regulations, BSEE will continue to be limited in its ability to ensure that its pipeline decommissioning process addresses environmental and safety risks.”
The report said the agency also lacks “a robust oversight process” for making sure that about 8,600 miles (13,840 kilometers) of pipelines in use in the Gulf of Mexico remain intact.
“Specifically, BSEE does not generally conduct or require any subsea inspections of active pipelines. Instead, the bureau relies on monthly surface observations and pressure sensors to detect leaks. However, officials told us that these methods and technologies are not always reliable for detecting ruptures,” the report said.
It said the agency and the offshore industry worked together to improve subsea leak detection after two leaks — one that spilled about 84,000 gallons (318,000 liters) of oil in May 2016 and one that spilled about 672,000 gallons (2.5 million liters) in October 2017.
However, those improvements can’t be added to most existing pipelines, the report said.