Even industry experts haven’t heard of Taylor Energy’s slow-motion oil spill, which began in 2004.
OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO — A blanket of fog lifts, exposing a band of rainbow sheen that stretches for miles off the coast of Louisiana. From an airplane, it’s easy to see gas bubbles in the slick that mark where an oil platform toppled during a 2004 hurricane, triggering what might be the longest-running commercial oil spill to pollute the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet more than a decade after crude started leaking at the site formerly operated by Taylor Energy, few people even know of its existence. The company has downplayed the leak’s extent and environmental impact.
An Associated Press investigation has found evidence that the spill is far worse than what Taylor and the government have publicly reported during their secretive, and costly, effort to halt the leak. Presented with AP’s findings, that the sheen recently averaged about 91 gallons of oil a day across eight square miles, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that is about 20 times greater than one recently touted by the company.
How much is spilling?
September 2004: A wave-induced mudslide during Hurricane Ivan topples a Taylor Energy-owned drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, burying a cluster of 28 wells under mounds of unstable sediment.
October 2008: The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service estimates an average spill of 22 gallons of oil a day.
March 2013: Federal officials estimate the site has been discharging approximately 4,500 gallons a year — about 12 gallons a day — since flights over the site began in July 2008. This estimate is based on reports submitted to the Coast Guard by a Taylor Energy contractor flying over the site.
March 2014: The Coast Guard and Interior Department convene a workshop to review leak assessments by Taylor Energy-contracted experts. Experts at the workshop conclude the sheens were less than 4 gallons a day.
August 2014: The federal government hosts another workshop with Taylor contractors to review the methodology for estimating slick size and volumes.
April 2015: The Coast Guard releases a new leak estimate: sheens of roughly 84 gallons a day at the site since September 2014.
Sources: Government and court records, Coast Guard statements
Outside experts say the spill could be one of the largest ever in the Gulf.
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Taylor’s oil was befouling the Gulf for years in obscurity before BP’s massive spill in mile-deep water outraged the nation in 2010. Even industry experts haven’t heard of Taylor’s slow-motion spill, which has been leaking like a steady trickle from a faucet, compared with the fire hose that was BP’s gusher.
Taylor has kept documents secret that would shed light on what it has done to stop the leak and eliminate the persistent sheen.
The Coast Guard said in 2008 that the leak posed a “significant threat” to the environment, though there is no evidence oil from the site has reached shore. Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University biological oceanography professor and expert witness in a lawsuit against Taylor, said the sheen “presents a substantial threat to the environment” and is capable of harming birds, fish and other marine life.
Using satellite images and pollution reports, the watchdog group SkyTruth says between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons of oil have spilled from the site since 2004, with an annual average daily leak rate between 37 and 900 gallons.
If SkyTruth’s high-end estimate of 1.4 million gallons is accurate, Taylor’s spill would be about 1 percent the size of BP’s, which a judge ruled amounted to 134 million gallons. That would still make the Taylor spill the eighth-largest in the Gulf since 1970, according to a list compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“The Taylor leak is just a great example of what I call a dirty little secret in plain sight,” SkyTruth President John Amos said.
Taylor has spent tens of millions of dollars to contain and stop its leak, but it says nothing can be done to completely halt the slicks.
The New Orleans company presented federal regulators last year with a proposed “final resolution” at the site, but the details remain under wraps. The government has allowed the company to shield other spill-related information from public scrutiny, in the name of protecting trade secrets.
Industry experts and environmental advocates are baffled by Taylor’s inability to stop the leak and its demands for confidentiality.
“It’s not normal to have a spill like this,” said Ken Arnold, an industry consultant and former engineering manager for Shell Oil. “Normally, we fix things much more quickly than this.”
Five years ago, it took 87 days for BP to cap its blown-out Gulf well and halt the worst offshore oil spill in the nation’s history. The disaster, which killed 11 rig workers, exposed weaknesses in the industry’s safety culture and gaps in its spill-response capabilities.
Taylor’s leak provided earlier evidence of how difficult it can be for the industry to prevent or stop a spill in an unforgiving environment. But the company has balked at sharing information that could help other offshore operators prepare for a similar incident, saying it’s a valuable asset.
Whether it can profit from any industry innovations is debatable. The company sold all its offshore leases and oil and gas interests in 2008, four years after founder Patrick Taylor died.
Down to just one full-time employee, Taylor Energy exists only to continue fighting a spill that has no end in sight.
Hurricane Ivan whipped into the Gulf of Mexico in 2004, churning up waves that triggered an underwater mudslide and toppled Taylor’s platform. The platform stood roughly 10 miles off Louisiana’s coast in approximately 475 feet of water. The mudslide buried the cluster of 28 wells under mounds of sediment. Taylor tried to remove the unstable sediment covering the damaged wells but determined it was too dangerous for divers.
Without access to the buried wells, traditional “plug and abandon” efforts wouldn’t work.
In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted the company’s response efforts for several months. In 2007, slick sightings became more frequent near the wreckage. In 2008, the Coast Guard, concerned about the environmental threat of the leak, ordered additional work, including daily monitoring flights over the site.
Just as BP had to improvise a method for capping its well in mile-deep water, Taylor says it formulated an “unprecedented plan” for containing the leak and sealing its buried wells.
Only the broad outlines of the company’s efforts are publicly known. A contractor designed a device to capture and dispose of oil and gas flowing from the seabed where its wells are buried.
Another contractor drilled new wells to intercept and plug nine wells deemed capable of leaking oil.
A year ago, federal officials convened a workshop on the leak. Months later, the company presented regulators its proposal for a final resolution at the site. That plan remains confidential, but Taylor Energy President William Pecue has said experts and government officials agree the “best course of action … is to not take any affirmative action” due to the possible risks of additional drilling.
Taylor had to share confidential records with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a New York-based environmental group that sued the company in 2012. But the company has worked to keep them from the public, stamping thousands of pages of documents as confidential and heavily redacting its president’s deposition.
A report related to the March 2014 workshop is under seal, and a court order prohibits the Waterkeeper Alliance from disseminating the confidential records.
During his deposition for the lawsuit, Pecue said the company developed innovations of “huge value” to another company in a similar situation. “Much of what we spent was because there was no pre-existing way to address this type of event in the history of our industry,” he said.
Pecue, the company’s last remaining full-time employee, said Taylor didn’t do anything to assess the risk of mudslides at its platform besides verifying that the previous leaseholder’s permits and designs met regulatory requirements.
Even people whose job it is to know about such leaks didn’t know about this one. Plaquemines Parish coastal-restoration director P.J. Hahn only found out about it in December 2012, when he saw one of Taylor’s slicks during a flight to BP’s Deepwater Horizon site. Hahn was stunned when a Coast Guard official told him oil had been leaking there for years.
“That’s right off of our coast. It’s really close,” said Hahn, who started in the job in 2007 and left the parish government last year. “I would have thought somebody would have shared it with us.”
From his home office in Shepherdstown, W.Va., SkyTruth’s Amos was tracking BP’s oil with satellites when he, too, was shocked to discover Taylor’s slicks.
He began tracking the Taylor spill, eventually putting its size at between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons.
The government, based on company-generated pollution reports, has given much smaller leak estimates for Taylor, from an average of 22 gallons a day in 2008 down to an average of 12 gallons a day over roughly the next five years. In a recent court filing, Taylor said experts concluded in March 2014 that the sheens contained an average volume of less than 4 gallons a day.
But AP’s review of more than 2,300 pollution reports since 2008 found they didn’t match official accounts of a diminishing leak. Those reports show an increase in sheen sizes and oil volumes since Sept. 1, 2014.
From April 2008 through August 2014, the average sheen size reported to the Coast Guard was 2 square miles with an average volume of 11 gallons of oil, according to AP’s analysis. Since then, the daily average sheen size ballooned to 8 square miles with an average volume of 91 gallons.
When confronted with evidence of the spike, the Coast Guard attributed it to an improved method for estimating slicks from the air.
After initially providing AP with an outdated, lower estimate, the Coast Guard then disclosed a new estimate: that approximately 16,000 gallons of oil have been detected in slicks in the past seven months. That is roughly six times higher than its 2013 estimate, and 20 times higher than the figure cited by Taylor in a Feb. 19 court filing.
A Taylor spokesman declined to comment on AP’s findings, but the company’s lawyers have dismissed the Waterkeeper Alliance’s lawsuit as a “sham.”
The company says oil released from the site now comes from the sediment around the wells, not the wells themselves; the Coast Guard says the source of the slicks is unknown.
Taking into account the reported change in estimation methods, AP’s analysis doesn’t show any statistically valid drop in sheen sizes or oil amounts over time. SkyTruth’s Amos said the slick sizes should be steadily shrinking if the wells are sealed and the recent sheens are residual oil oozing from the sediment.
“The persistent size of the oil slicks we’re seeing just don’t jibe with those low leak-rate estimates we’ve seen,” he said.
Gaps and complex variables in the data make it impossible to pinpoint how much oil has spilled. Doug Helton, operations coordinator for NOAA’s Emergency Response Division, said estimating the volume of slicks is hindered by the difficulty of determining the thickness of the oil. “It’s hard to do that from satellites. It’s hard to do that from flying by in an aircraft,” Helton said.