New research has discovered that the cost of securing thousands of inactive oil and gas wells in the US Gulf of Mexico could be more than $30 billion. The study weighed the potential environmental damage against the estimated price tag. Researchers found that there are around 14,000 unplugged oil and gas wells in the waters off the southeastern coast of the United States, which have either been inactive for at least five years or are officially idle.

Focus on Offshore Sites

The authors of the study focused on offshore sites, which are relatively more costly and complicated to secure than those on land. They found that both taxpayers and fossil fuel giants would likely be responsible for the costs of plugging and abandoning the wells. This process includes encasing the opening in concrete to stop oil and the potent greenhouse gas methane from leaking out.

Environmental Risk

The research discovered that 90% of the inactive wells in the US Gulf of Mexico region are in shallower waters closer to shore, but they only account for a quarter of the $30 billion in plugging costs. The wells in shallower waters present a greater environmental risk. Researchers identified around 13,000 idle wells in shallow waters close to shore, either in the state waters of Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama or in federal jurisdiction.

The study highlighted that oil leaks from shallow wells would be more likely to pose a threat to coastal habitats than those from deeper wells. The underlying processes affecting ecological impacts of inactive wells that produce small, chronic, and potentially unobserved leaks have many similarities to those affecting environmental impacts caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the worst environmental disasters in US history.

Under US laws, the costs for plugging wells in state waters are more likely to fall on taxpayers, while in federal waters, it is often the current or even previous owner that is liable. The study found that of the total $30 billion in estimated costs for plugging inactive wells, under $2 billion were in state waters. The vast majority of costs were in federal waters, where nearly 90% of the wells had at one point been owned by “supermajor” companies like Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Total and Eni.

In conclusion, the study suggests that the focus should be on the shallow wells closer to shore, which present the greatest environmental risk. The cost to secure inactive wells could be huge, but before taxpayers become liable, oil and gas firms should be held responsible.


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