Beyond the BP Oil Spill: Abandoned Wells May Spell Disaster
Letting Sleeping Watchdogs Lie
The Minerals Management Service (MMS) is the federal agency charged with regulating oil companies, ensuring those corporations operate safely and don't harm the environment. However, the agency collects billions of dollars in licensing and other fees from Big Oil, making it one of the biggest sources of revenue for the U.S. government.
It's also allegedly one of the most notoriously corrupt outfits around. In 2008, three separate reports from the Inspector General revealed that MMS employees had not only taken lucrative bribes and gifts from the oil companies they were supposed to regulate, but that some officials had awarded themselves $3 million contracts, and that drugs and sex were regularly involved, too.
One of the reports states that MMS officials "frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives." The report notes that one regulator had sex with two of his subordinates, one of whom sold him cocaine.
These are the guys in charge of keeping an eye on the oil industry -- and they were in cahoots for years before the BP oil spill. Astonishingly -- or not so astonishingly --President Obama didn't order a shakeup in the status quo there until well after the BP spill had rocked the Gulf. The leadership in the disgraced agency is now being thrown out and its structure reorganized, but only time will tell if anything has really changed.
Masters of Disaster
How likely is another disaster? Rick Steiner, a professor and leading oil spill expert who's been on the tail of Big Oil ever since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, says that the AP report about dangerous abandoned wells was accurate and that there are thousands of abandoned wells in the Gulf, with numerous others off California and Alaska.
"Abandoned wells pose a significant environmental risk, as they can fail," explains Steiner. They still have reservoir pressure on them, and even the cement in permanent plugs can fail over time. We are really running an experiment in the Gulf. After 40 or 50 years, any plug can possibly fail."
There's a distinct possibility for another disaster in the Gulf or a sequel in Alaska or off the California coast. The watchdogs we're supposed to rely on to stop it from happening have been neglecting their duties. New wells are being abandoned every day. Each year, the US drills 50,000 new wells, and leaves many of them behind; then again, that's a lot of wells to keep an eye on with security and other manpower.
The rest of the world, including major drilling nations like Australia and Norway, are seemingly as foolhardy as we are:
A recent <I>Wall Street Journal</I> article reveals that over the last two years, the rate of serious drilling incidents worldwide has spiked -- even for the nations that are traditionally the safest. Accidents in the Gulf, in the South Pacific, even in Scandinavian waters, are happening more now than ever.