Oil cleanup

Although unmitigated environmental disasters like 2010’s Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill are relatively rare in the offshore sector, smaller spills and leaks remain a common component of the industry’s environmental impact.

Last year British trade association Oil & Gas UK revealed in its annual report that although "major and significant releases" had gone down in 2013, the industry’s total spills and leaks in the North Sea rose by 19%, reflecting a significant spike in small releases. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, there have been 44 spills of at least 10,000 gallons in US waters since 1969, with smaller incidents occurring far more frequently.

The public, meanwhile, are drawn to rare large-scale disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon and the Exxon Valdez spill while generally overlooking smaller incidents, leading some observers to fear that the lack of scrutiny might leave the industry with too little oversight when responding to less severe spills and leaks.

Perhaps the most fitting example of the hidden nature of these incidents is the offshore leak in the Gulf of Mexico that Taylor Energy Company, beneath the notice of mainstream America, has been attempting to deal with for the last decade.

The spill that won’t go away

The origin of the Taylor Energy spill came roaring into the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic during hurricane season 2004. As well as ripping through Grenada, Jamaica and a number of other Caribbean islands, Hurricane Ivan caused an estimated $18bn in damage to the US states of Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and Texas. Not least on the list of casualties was Taylor Energy Company’s Mississippi Canyon oil platform located 10 miles off the coast of Louisiana, which was toppled by an underwater landslide triggered by the storm.

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As the conclusion in the report illustrates: "overall, far too little is known".

The platform was left sprawled on its side almost 900ft from its original location, and the 28 producing wells it had stood above were buried under thick layers of sediment, making them unreachable for traditional ‘plug and abandon’ interventions. Three oil plumes were spotted rising from the site of the well casings and the stricken platform.

"Conventional plugging and abandonment typically involves re-entering the target well internally from the surface, maintaining well control, and inserting cement plugs," said Unified Command, the government-created body set up to oversee Taylor Energy’s spill response plan, in a statement. After it was discovered that the wellheads were "severely damaged and submerged under vast quantities of mud and sediment", Taylor Energy adopted a longer-term well intervention strategy.

Reassessing the Taylor Energy spill

Since the spill in 2004, a great deal has transpired for both the spill response effort and the company responsible for undertaking it. Taylor Energy sold its offshore leases and exited the oil and gas business in 2008, reportedly retaining just a single employee and continuing to exist for the sole purpose of stopping the leak. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on underwater containment domes, well interventions, an underwater collection and containment system, while nine of the wells have been plugged.

One fact remains stubbornly unchanged – oil continues to leak into the Gulf from the Taylor Energy spill site. According to an Associated Press (AP) report published in May, the company submitted a final resolution to the federal government in 2014, essentially proposing to halt further well intervention work, as the environmental risks of further interfering with the wells outweighed the potential benefits that the work might bring. In a February 2015 court filing, the company contended that the declining oil sheens from the site contained an average of less than four gallons of oil per day, making it of limited significance to the wider Gulf eco-system.

"One fact remains stubbornly unchanged – oil continues to leak into the Gulf from the Taylor Energy spill site."

Others disagreed with the company’s optimistic assessment. The AP reported on accounts of the spill’s size that differed massively with Taylor Energy’s estimates, including that of environmental watchdog SkyTruth, which estimated an average daily leak rate of between 37 and 900 gallons, a massive jump on the government’s figures of 12 to 22 gallons per day and even further removed from Taylor Energy’s appraisal. A further study by AP of thousands of pollution reports since 2008 also contradicted the idea that the leak was dwindling, as it unearthed reports of growing sheen sizes and oil volumes after September 2014. The US Coast Guard, presented with the data, revised its own estimate to 16,000 gallons of oil in the previous seven months, six times higher than its previous estimate in 2013 and 20 times higher than Taylor Energy’s figures.

Lifting the veil: court action and settlement

AP’s report might have brought the spill size discrepancies to the wider public this year, but Taylor Energy’s response to the leaks was already being challenged in the form of a lawsuit initiated in 2012 by clean water non-profit the Waterkeeper Alliance and a number of other activist groups. The legal action was intended to bring greater transparency to the spill response and data concerning the oil’s volume and dispersal.

At its heart, the lawsuit was a challenge to the veil of secrecy under which the spill response was taking place. In the absence of accurate spill volume data – it is, after all, difficult to track oil sheen precisely, and methodology is still evolving in this area – Taylor Energy also held back the details of its containment efforts to the public, citing its need to keep proprietary technologies confidential, despite having already left the oil and gas business in all but name. The company’s spill data reports might have been mandatory, but it has seemingly been under no legal obligation to make those reports accurate.

"To me, the Taylor well situation is emblematic of the culture of oil and gas here in Louisiana," said Marylee Orr of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, in an interview with the Times-Picayune newspaper. "Oil and gas has caused a tremendous amount of damage to Louisiana, particularly coastal Louisiana, and they face virtually no consequences for it."

The Gulf of Mexico’s Lower Tertiary is one of the world’s most promising ultra-deepwater frontier regions.

In September 2015, the case came to a conclusion when Taylor Energy, having recently failed to have the case thrown out, reached a settlement with the plaintiffs. The deal struck saw the company agree to release "information about the spill since it started in 2004 and open public access to information on an ongoing basis". All refusals to make data public will be reviewed by a Magistrate Judge, who will decide whether Taylor will have to comply with the request.

Under the settlement terms, Taylor Energy will contribute $400,000 to the funds of various projects working to study and mitigate oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, but as Waterkeeper Alliance executive director Marc Yaggi acknowledged in the wake of the settlement, the requirement for transparency is likely a more significant win for the public.

"When we began this lawsuit, the public was completely in the dark about what was happening with this ongoing oil spill," said Yaggi. "This agreement will provide much needed transparency, and therefore accountability, surrounding the response process. We hope that once the veil of secrecy has been lifted, independent experts will look at what Taylor has done so far and provide insight as to whether there is more that can be done to stop this spill."

Given the demonstrable challenges that even relatively modest leaks can present to companies, it seems appropriate that public accountability and independent scrutiny should play an important role in ensuring that spill responders are doing all they can to minimise their impact. But the Taylor settlement represents only a single case; without stronger federal oversight of spill response data and accountability, it’s still possible that the next time an oil spill incident slips under the radar, the public could be kept in the dark for another decade.