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Louisiana Removes Defunct Oil Wells But Hazards Remain

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This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Oct. 4, 2010 edition.

The state's thousands of orphaned wells, left behind by oil and gas producers, are eyesores that can also cause serious injuries, boating accidents and menacing spills in water. On a day spent fishing or hiking in Southeast Louisiana, you may have been dismayed at seeing these steel-and-wood structures, and thought "why isn't something being done about them?"

Officials are addressing the industry's litter, but at a measured pace because of a limited budget. Since 1993, a state tax on oil and gas producers has generated millions of dollars yearly--and an annual $4 million recently--for the Oilfield Site Restoration, or OSR, program run by the Louisiana Office of Conservation. Those funds are used for the costly process of sealing wells and carting off structural material and equipment.

The state inspects abandoned wells once every three years, according to Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the Louisianan Dept. of Natural Resources. A well is considered "orphaned" when the operator hasn't responded to compliance orders or has filed for bankruptcy. The site's status is then published in the Louisiana Register of monthly, legal notices.

"The OSR program plugs and abandons orphan wells, removes orphan facilities and restores sites as close as possible to pre-well conditions," Courreges said. By addressing one or several sites at a time, officials have made headway in getting rid of jettisoned equipment following a century of drilling.

Since 1993, about 8,200 wells across the state have been identified as orphaned, Courreges said. So far, the program has closed 2,453 wells, 596 production and reserve pits, and another 295 facilities at a cost of $65 million. Additionally, about 3,000 wells were removed from the orphan list after private operators took sites over, or through actions by agencies other than the Dept. of Natural Resources, he said. About 5,400 wells on the state's orphan list, or 65%, have been cleared from the list to date, leaving 2,762 orphaned wells to be addressed.

Jim Rike, petroleum engineer and owner of Rike Services, Inc. in Tickfaw--north of Lake Pontchartrain, said "what has happened in the past is that a well is sold because of low productivity, it gets sold again, and then the final owner tries to squeeze the last drop out of it. The owner stops using the well and is obligated to abandon it properly, but he can't afford to and declares bankruptcy."

Many of these eery-looking, old facilities are in local bays, lakes and bayous. In St. Bernard Parish, Captain Johnny Nunez, owner of Fishing Magician Charters in Shell Beach on Lake Borgne, said "we still have oil and gas platforms lying in the water in this area from Katrina. The old structures are rusted and have parts that break off."

Nunez continued, saying "hundreds of active and inactive wells exist in Breton Sound, Black Bay and Bay Eloi. Many of them, even some of the active ones, don't have any lights. The locals know where they are, but they're still a hazard--particularly for boats coming in from other places."

The shrinking coast is one reason companies abandon equipment, Nunez said. Two boaters ran into a gas pipeline in Eloi Bay in summer 2009, and one was seriously injured. "That pipeline used to be on land, but because of coastal erosion it's in the water now," he said. "The injured boater couldn't collect damages since the pipeline owner is no longer in business." Lake Borgne, now a lagoon connected to the Gulf of Mexico, was once a lake that was separated by wetlands from the Gulf.

Meanwhile, in a recent accident south of New Orleans, a tug vessel pushing a barge struck an abandoned wellhead in the Barataria Waterway in July, shooting natural gas, light crude oil and foul water into the air. The well, which was unlit, belongs to the Cedyco Corp. in Houston and is in Louisiana's orphan program. The gush lasted nearly a week and left thousands of gallons of oil and miles of sheen in Barataria Bay.

A lengthy battle to close old wells continues in Lake Pontchartrain, according to John Lopez, coastal scientist and director of the Coastal Sustainability Program at Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. He said "approximately four or five oil and gas wells, owned by two companies, are producing in the lake, and about two dozen, unused structures exist. Many of those structures should be removed by the end of next year, however, by owners or by the state's orphan well program. "It's hoped that the only remaining structures will be those still in service and in compliance."

A 2008-09 survey of Lake Pontchartrain, done by Lopez and his colleague Andrew Baker, found that 25 defunct, oil-and-gas structures--of mostly steel and wood timbers--remained above the lake's surface. Some are popular fishing spots by day. A number of those sites are in disrepair, with timbers that can dislodge in storms, threatening navigation, Lopez said last week.

"Without maintenance, these old structures continue to decay and become more hazardous," Lopez said. Many of Lake Pontchartrain's defunct wells have no navigation lights and are threats to boaters at night. Among those without lights, some have wellheads that could leak oil or subsurface brine in a collision, Lopez and Baker said in their study. Several unused, oil and gas facilities in the lake are close to the shore in Kenner, and others are near the Causeway Bridge.

In 1991, a moratorium was placed on new drilling leases in Lake Pontchartrain, where reserves are mostly natural gas. In 2006, the lake was removed from the federal Impaired Waters list after a multi-pronged cleanup, and most of it is now considered safe for swimming.

In lakes near New Orleans, the Oilfield Site Restoration program "has plugged and abandoned six orphan wells in Lake Pontchartrain, and removed an orphan facility there in 1995, spending $864,100 altogether," Courreges said. OSR also got rid of an orphaned facility in Lake Maurepas in 1998 at a cost of $145,000.

Across the state, "the OSR currently averages $162,500 per site for plug-and-abandonment costs in water locations," Courreges said. "The cost for plug and abandonment and removal varies, based on wellbore mechanics; well depth, location and accessibility; water depth, time of year and available contractors."

Rike said that abandoned, production facilities are a problem in industries across the nation. An old, tapped-out oil well is not nearly as toxic as, say, an unused creosote plant with storage tanks, he said. Creosote, used for wood treatment, can pollute drinking-well water.

You were probably told as a kid that rust causes tetanus and were warned about stepping on nails barefoot. But scientists say tetanus is caused by dirt and germs, not rust. Rike believes that rust from steel in old, abandoned oil and gas wells is not particularly dangerous. "Steel rusts slowly, and in most bodies of water, rust doesn't pose a threat to fish or drinking water," he said.

Rike said some of the big threats from south Louisiana's depleted wells are that they bang up boats and snag fishing nets. Any obstacles in the water, like sunken barges in the Mississippi River, are a hazard to navigation, he said, and added that bigger vessels use sound equipment or sonar to avoid them.

Abandoned wells in water beyond Louisiana's three-mile limit are in federal territory. In mid-September, the Obama Administration said oil and gas companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico must plug temporarily abandoned wells permanently, and dismantle unused, production platforms. At that time, Michael Bromwich, head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said risks from aging, oil and gas infrastructure rise considerably during storm season.

One of the chief reasons for removing old, oil and gas wells from south Louisiana's lakes and bayous is that those areas are vulnerable to storms and hurricanes, and any collapse in structures could threaten the public, Lopez said.