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Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva Headshot

Getting The Gulf Back to Work: Let's Remove Idle Oil Drilling Structures

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According to a recent analysis, there are more than 1,000 oil rigs and drilling structures sitting idle in the Gulf of Mexico. These structures have not been affected by the recently announced drilling moratorium -- rather, they were abandoned by their owners, sometimes many years ago, and allowed to decay or collapse into the ocean. These structures, commonly referred to as "idle iron," now provide us with a unique chance to create jobs and open up future economic opportunities throughout the Gulf region.

According to a July 7 report by the Associated Press, the number could be much higher: "More than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lurk in the hard rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico, an environmental minefield that has been ignored for decades. No one -- not industry, not government -- is checking to see if they are leaking." As the analysis reminds us, "the well beneath BP's Deepwater Horizon rig was being sealed with cement for temporary abandonment when it blew April 20, leading to one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation's history. BP alone has abandoned about 600 wells in the Gulf, according to government data."

It may be tempting to think these abandoned structures are benign, or even beneficial, because they create artificial reefs or good fishing grounds. This sit-back-and-wait attitude is dangerous. Steel pipe casings can rust through. Old well caps can fail. No one knows how many wells are already leaking slowly and steadily into the Gulf and elsewhere. With everyone's eyes on the oil industry, now is the time for action.

On Monday, I sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urging him to push oil companies responsible for these idle rigs to remove them by employing residents of Gulf states affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Current federal regulations mandate the removal of any rig that has been inactive for one year, but those regulations are not being fully enforced. The text of the letter is below.

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Dear Secretary Salazar,

It has come to my attention that more than 1,000 oil rigs are sitting idle in the Gulf of Mexico. These rigs have not been affected by the recently announced drilling moratorium - they were abandoned by their parent companies, sometimes years ago, and allowed to decay. These structures, commonly referred to as "idle iron," now provide us with a unique chance to create jobs and open up future economic opportunities throughout the Gulf region.

Federal regulations require that hydrocarbon structures be removed within one year after their leases are terminated. These regulations are not being completely enforced. A 2007 report requested by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and written by Louisiana State University (Idle Iron in the Gulf of Mexico) identified 1,227 idle structures in the Gulf. As the report correctly notes, "Structures that exist on a lease that have not produced in the last year do not serve a useful economic function[.]"

Gulf residents should be put to work removing idle iron as soon as possible. This would revitalize the regional economy in several ways. By removing outdated structures, Gulf workers would help the structures' owners comply with existing regulations and ensure that cleared areas are open to potential future opportunities. Idle iron parent companies should be encouraged to hire local labor without delay to dismantle and remove as many structures as can be located.

In your capacity as Secretary of the Interior, you have jurisdiction over the enforcement of the relevant regulations. MMS in its Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Request asked for six new additional full time employees for its regulatory activities, specifically citing the needs created by "aging infrastructure, hurricane damage, and idle iron." These efforts should be given the resources they need. As you increase your ability to enforce these regulations, I call on you to encourage owners of idle structures to hire Gulf workers to remove them as soon as possible.

Sincerely,

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva

Member of Congress

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I chair the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, and I take that responsibility very seriously. Our public lands and waters need to be protected. But even beyond my subcommittee's jurisdiction, there's a need for oversight of the oil industry and a serious lack of creative thinking when it comes to getting the Gulf economy back on track. It's not a regional issue -- it's a national issue. Cleaning up the Gulf and putting the people of the region back on the job will have a ripple effect that will be felt by employers and employees all over the country, and there's reason to think the spill is worse than this week's government report indicates. This is a simple way to get that process going, and I'm going to make sure the right people follow up on it.