Federal lawyers: Gulf oil leak spills much more than thought

Associated Press, 9/17/2018

By: Jeff Amy and Michael Kunzelman

Federal government lawyers say a 14-year-old leak is releasing much more oil each day into the Gulf of Mexico than officials previously claimed, and it may be getting worse.

A Friday court filing in a case involving Taylor Energy Co. says 10,000 to 30,000 gallons (37,000 to 113,000 liters) daily is leaking from multiple wells around a drilling platform toppled by 2004′s Hurricane Ivan.

That estimate if far above the 16,000 gallons (60,500 liters) of oil that the U.S. Coast Guard estimated in 2015 had been spotted in slicks over seven months.

“There has been an uptrend of the areas of the slick during the last two years,” wrote Oscar Pineda-Garcia, who runs a company that maps oil spills and is an adjunct professor at Florida State University.

New Orleans-based Taylor said only 2 to 3 gallons was leaking daily out of mud on the seafloor. Spokesman Todd Ragusa said the company disputes the government’s new estimate and will respond in court.

“The government’s recent filing is completely contrary to the comprehensive, sound science acquired by world-renowned experts, including those regularly relied upon by the government,” Ragusa wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

2015 AP investigation revealed evidence that the leak was worse than the company, or government, had publicly reported during their secretive response. Presented with AP’s findings that year, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that was about 20 times larger than one cited by the company in a 2015 court filing.

Friday’s court filing also says Taylor and the Coast Guard met in August and discussed plugging more wells as part of an effort to eliminate the persistent oil sheen seen at the site. The wellheads are more than 400 feet (120 meters) underwater and buried under 60 to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters) of mud.

“The trust requires — and has always required — that Taylor complete all of its decommissioning obligations before the trust can terminate. The United States’ denial of Taylor’s request for a release from its existing obligations does not constitute an imposition of a new obligation,” the lawyers wrote.

Waves whipped up by Ivan triggered an underwater mudslide that buried a cluster of oil wells under treacherous mounds of sediment. In 2011, the company finished drilling a series of “intervention wells” to plug nine of the wells.

Using Coast Guard pollution reports, West Virginia-based watchdog group SkyTruth estimated in December that between roughly 855,000 gallons (3.2 million liters) and nearly 4 million gallons (15.1 million liters) of oil spilled from the site between 2004 and 2017.

Garcia writes in his report that the oil is thick enough that people need to wear respirators because of fumes. He says bubbles of not just oil, but natural gas is reaching the surface, while his report shows pictures of thick, brown oil emulsions in some places.

One more time. No oil drilling near Florida | South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial

The editorial board of the South Florida Sun Sentinel takes a stand on the latest effort by the American Petroleum Institute to drill off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Like red tide, the push for more drilling near Florida’s beaches is relentless and dangerous.

The latest effort comes from the American Petroleum Institute in the form of a “coalition” called Explore Offshore. In a lame attempt to deflect criticism, the group claims that it wants merely to find out what oil and gas might be available in areas that currently are off-limits.

Those areas include almost any site within 125 miles of Florida’s coast on the Gulf of Mexico and anywhere off the coast on the Atlantic Ocean. Protection for the beaches on which Florida’s tourism industry relies long has been one of the few bipartisan causes in this state. The Department of Defense also supports the gulf prohibition so it can conduct national security tests.

Yet the industry won’t give up. Three weeks ago, Explore Offshore rolled out a campaign that presumes Floridians have short memories.

Jeff Kottkamp is co-chairman in Florida for Explore Offshore. The former state legislator was Charlie Crist’s lieutenant governor in April 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off Louisiana.

Yet Kottkamp claimed that no oil reached Florida. That statement would surprise residents of the Panhandle, where heavy oil arrived in late June. Tarballs hit beaches. Local boaters had been skimming oil. Families planning trips after the school year cancelled. So did June brides. Fishing bans further hurt tourism. BP’s settlement with Florida totaled $3.2 billion.

In an interview with the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, Kottkamp – who said he is receiving no compensation from Explore Offshore – tried to walk back that comment. “We got some oil,” Kottkamp said, “but the pictures in the coverage just made it look horrible.”

For those directly affected, it was horrible. And to refresh Kottkamp’s memory, what remains the world’s largest accidental oil spill could have been catastrophic for much of Florida.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon explosion got to within 30 miles of the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current. It moves five times faster than other waters in the gulf. Had oil reached it, the current would have carried the oil to the Florida Keys and South Florida. In May 2010, Palm Beach County officials were preparing for such a scenario.

We asked Kottkamp about that close call. He said, “I used to be more in touch with all those facts.”

Explore Offshore’s campaign comes amid controversy about President Trump’s plan to open almost all federal water to drilling and whether Florida would receive an exemption. In January, during a staged event in Tallahassee meant to look spontaneous, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declared Florida “off the table.”

We were suspicious of that pledge and remain so. Zinke held the event with Gov. Rick Scott, who is running against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. It came just five days after Trump announced his plan. Scott has favored expanded offshore drilling. Nelson sponsored the legislation that extended the 125-mile Gulf of Mexico ban until 2022.

Here’s more reason for suspicion. Politico reported last month that “Zinke and Scott were careful to ‘not say the entire Eastern Gulf,’ was off the table” in January. “There are some Republicans who are prepared to make a deal. Seventy-five miles is the expected buffer, but folks might be willing to throw it a little further.”

Kottkamp said he would not support any plan that makes oil rigs visible from the shore. He added, “The industry has learned a whole lot from the (BP) spill. There is improved safety.”

Actually, the industry seems to have learned nothing. After hearing from lobbyists, Trump proposed weakening two safety rules that emerged from the work of a commission that studied the BP spill. One was designed specifically to prevent another blowout similar to the Deepwater Horizon.

Though Kottkamp maintains that he supports just an investigation of what oil might be accessible, Explore Offshore’s website gives away the group’s goal. A fact sheet lists the supposed economic benefits over 20 years of increased oil and gas drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Fortunately, at this point, opposition remains bipartisan. Democrat Nelson wants to extend the 125-mile limit until 2027. So does Florida’s other senator, Republican Marco Rubio. Matt Gaetz, the Republican who represents the Panhandle in Congress, fears the threat expanded oil and gas exploration would pose for the military’s Gulf Test Range.

Further drilling, Gaetz said, “would be devastating to our national security. I don’t have a nuanced view on this. I am opposed.”

The industry cites national security as a reason for expanded drilling. We believe Florida’s security is the reason to say no.

Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Andy Reid and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.