Video: One year after Gulf spill, oil remains

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    >>> a year to the day after the deep water horison oil rig explosion fell into the waters of mexico, killing 11 workers, some of the survivors, family workers flew over that site today, and sin that day, grief has been mixed with anger over this disaster all along the gulf coast . our chief environmental affairs correspondent is with us tonight.

    >> reporter: good evening, late today, bp filed suit against the maker of the blow-out preventers alleging a faulty design contributed to the oil spill . some of that oil is still in louisiana's marshes, and now officials here are trying to decide if the effort to clean it up is worth the risk to this fragile coastline. one year later, there are still clean-up workers in one of the most heavily oiled areas in louisiana' coast. using a giant hedge clipper , they cut a marsh to get at the oil trapped by the grasses. a giant rake gets the debris.

    >> this is a little bit of resid ial left.

    >> it has a sticky consistency.

    >> it's kind of like a peanut butter consistency. if you try to get it all, you would really be potentially excavating the marsh and losing it.

    >> reporter: 60 miles away , another area devastated by the spill, a path of blanks leads the way to the path of oil. the pungent odor of the summer is gone, but all it takes is a couple shovel fulls of muck and you can see the tell tale rust colored signs of oil.

    >> the sheen on the surface.

    >>> james peters who makes his living leading deep- sea fishing trips is seeing it, too.

    >> you can see a sheen and oil droplets in the water.

    >> there is no more visible oil on the island where we first saw the pictures. how healthy does cat island look to you?

    >> frankly, it doesn't look too healthy.

    >> he points to the dying man mangroves on the edge and the leafless interior. still, pelicans make their nest here. for all the effort of the past year, environmentalists say cleanup without coast restoration is pointless.

    >> it's for naught because in five years all of that's going to be eroded away. in 50 years, it's all gone. everything you see is gone.

    >> now, finally tonight, the government is strongly disputing an associated press report that says 3,200 wells in the gulf of mexico do not have cement plug and threaten to leak oil into the waters. the government said those are sealed and they're monitored every six month.

updated 4/20/2011 7:52:44 PM ET 2011-04-20T23:52:44

One year after a deadly oil-rig explosion set off the worst offshore spill in U.S. history, the environmental minefield of abandoned wells in the Gulf of Mexico is worse than first thought, with no quick solution in sight.

A government list obtained by The Associated Press shows that in addition to 27,000 oil and gas wells that were sealed with cement and abandoned without any regular monitoring, another 3,200 old wells have quietly been left unused without any cement plugging to help prevent leaks.

Without those plugs, there is little to prevent powerful leaks from pushing to the surface, so these wells could be an even greater environmental threat than wells that have been sealed and classified as either temporarily or permanently abandoned. The 27,000 sealed wells were first tallied and reported as a major leaking threat in an investigative report by the AP in July.

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The 3,200 unplugged wells are officially still active, but they haven't been used for at least five years and there are no plans to restore production on them, according to the federal government. Operators have not been required to plug the wells because their leases have not expired.

Even depleted wells can repressurize from work on nearby wells or shifts in oil or gas layers beneath the surface, petroleum engineers say. But no one is routinely watching to make sure that doesn't happen.

The addition of the unused but officially active wells, as documented in a list provided to the AP by federal officials under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, means at least three-fifths of the 50,000 wells ever drilled in the Gulf have been left behind with no routine monitoring for leaks.

The 27,000 decommissioned wells were drilled mostly on federal leases that have now expired. Government rules for expired leases on the sea floor require operators to plug the wells or make plans to reuse them within a year, after receiving a lease extension. In its original report, the AP documented how oil and gas companies regularly flouted the rules regarding temporary abandonment, with some wells "temporarily abandoned" since the 1950s.

Rules for unexpired leases are different, and have allowed operators to simply walk away from idle wells. Some of the roughly 3,200 unsealed wells contained in the latest list were drilled 60 years ago, and most are more than 10 years old.

Federal regulators described idle wells on active leases as a "potential threat" to the environment in a September letter to operators announcing a new program, dubbed "Idle Iron," to plug them within three years. The letter said the program would cover more than 3,000 idle wells but didn't say what kind of wells would be included or whether the wells already contained at least some cement plugging.

The list of specific wells covered by the Idle Iron initiative was provided to the AP by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which regulates oil and gas leases on federal lands on the sea floor.

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BOEMRE refused to provide the list when the AP first requested it in September. The agency said at the time that it first wanted to verify with gas and oil companies that the wells were correctly classified. The AP argued that the FOIA provides access to records as they exist at the time of the request, but the agency still refused to release the material.

In finally providing the list last month, BOEMRE said the wells had been "verified." But several weeks later, a representative of the agency, Eileen Angelico, contacted the AP and said it had mistakenly released the original unverified list.

It is that version — a listing of wells as they were classified in September without any challenges from the industry — that the AP has analyzed and used as a basis for this story because these are the wells now in the Idle Iron program. Angelico said the verified list wasn't yet ready, despite the earlier assurance that the released list had been checked by operators.

The list cites the American Petroleum Institute number of 3,253 oil or gas wells targeted by the initiative in September. Ninety-nine percent of them, or 3,212, were classified as completed wells. Most were drilled for regular production, but a few were exploratory.

Just 41 of the Idle Iron wells — 1 percent — were already classified in September as "temporarily abandoned."

When wells are drilled, they are lined with metal casing, which is then encased in cement to further shore up the borehole.

Whole segments of wells that are permanently abandoned are plugged with additional lengths of cement — known as plugs — to prevent any oil or gas from pushing its way to the top. Then, the top of the casing is sheared off, and a cap is placed over it.

When wells are temporarily abandoned, fewer cement plugs are placed, so it is easier to drill through the plugs and resume production, if desired.

The typical well in the Iron Idle program is finished with a wellhead, which is the top of the metal lining, and perhaps a device called a tree, a faucet-like rig equipped with valves to open and shut the flow of hydrocarbons during production. It may also contain heavy drilling fluid, valves or other barriers to keep the well closed. However, the Idle Iron program forces operators to insert cement plugs, which are the standard to fully seal and prevent leaks in an abandoned well.

Federal regulators have acknowledged that even some plugged wells have leaked in the past. And, as the AP disclosed last summer, there is no routine monitoring of abandoned wells — plugged or unplugged.

The oil and gas industry has generally viewed plugging on unexpired leases as an inconvenience, preferring the freedom to resume operations at any time on such wells.

When BP's Deepwater Horizon well blew in the Gulf last April 20, killing 11 workers, it was being temporarily abandoned to await later production. A poor cement plugging job has been identified as a chief cause of the deadly explosion and spill.

Engineers say the metal and cement lining inside abandoned wells, as well as the plugs, can break down over time and allow leaking. Petroleum or corrosive brine, which is even saltier than sea water, can leak from under the sea floor, harming aquatic life.

The most dramatic threat from the Idle Iron wells is a gusher akin to the BP spill, though probably on a smaller scale, specialists say.

Roger N. Anderson, an energy geophysicist at Columbia University, said he worries about a catastrophic failure of the cement lining in the unplugged wells. "The one thing we don't know very much about is how the cement will age. Highways only last so long, and the cement starts to degrade," he said.

Another danger is that many of the unused Idle Iron wells may be slowly leaking, hurting sea creatures that have adapted to the natural petroleum seepage from the sea floor, but not to higher amounts. "Elevated chronic leaks from thousands of sources spread widely across the Gulf can have much more impact than single spills," said Doug Rader, an ecologist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

A third danger is that hurricanes or other storms will wreck underwater structures and make them leak.

David Pettit, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the lack of oversight of unused wells makes him nervous.

"I have no idea how badly they may be leaking," he said, adding that federal regulators should start with checking some of the oldest wells.

Under the Idle Iron program, operators can choose to seal the wells with a complete series of plugs and sheared-off well lining for permanent abandonment, or with fewer plugs for temporary abandonment.

As a third choice, they may apply limited plugs strategically around the oil or gas zones within the well — but must then seal the well more thoroughly within two more years.

It's not clear if companies would be required to fully seal the Idle Iron wells that are already listed as temporarily abandoned.

Under the new rules, future wells that drop out of production on active leases also must be sealed within three years.

Gene Beck, an engineer at Texas A&M University who used to work in the petroleum industry, said many companies won't like the Idle Iron program "because it's going to cost a lot of money." It is not clear how much, but companies will have to spend at least $3 billion to permanently plug wells on both active and expired federal leases, according to earlier BOEMRE estimates.

Apache Corp., which operates the most Idle Iron wells with 587 in its portfolio, foresees spending $317 million to plug and decommission its own assets in the Gulf just this year.

Drew Hunger, who manages Gulf decommissioning work for Apache, said he views the timetable of the Idle Iron program as reasonably ambitious, but he added that it also appears to allow for "the limitations on available contractor equipment and manpower."

He said industry complaints about the program revolve around the paperwork and the limited size of BOEMRE's staffing to process it.

Chevron U.S.A., the company with the second-highest number of wells in the program at 528, did not respond to a request for comment. BP has 24 such wells and also did not respond.

Federal officials have said little about how the new program will be enforced. Neither the BOEMRE nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which monitors sea pollution, responded to repeated requests for interviews about the program.

Along the Gulf Coast, fishermen casting lines from a pier in Grand Isle, La., were divided on whether the abandoned, unplugged wells pose a threat.

Devin O'Neal, 39, of Zachary, La., said he couldn't understand why operators hadn't been required to plug the wells.

"God, that's a lot of wells," he said. "We should have some governing authorities making sure they have those things in place. If they don't, they have no business drilling."

However, Dee Price, 45, a charter boat captain, said he wasn't worried since the wells were "probably dried up."

"You want to know my opinion about it? Drill, baby, drill," interjected Jeff Brumfield, another boat captain, quoting 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.


Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman contributed to this report from Grand Isle, La. The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The BP spill revisited

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  1. Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana on April 21, 2010. (USCG) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Smoke from the Deepwater Horizon rises high above the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010. The rig sank the next day. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A Northern Gannet, normally white when fully grown, is washed to remove oil from the spill at a facility in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Glenn Corbett, of Pensacola, Fla., gets help from his granddaughter Emma Wilmoth, 5, as they joined hundreds of volunteers picking up trash along Escambia County beaches on May 2, 2010. Officials organized the massive beach cleanup in anticipation of an oil slick. (Scott Keeler / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mark DeFelice, executive chef at Pascal's Manale restaurant in New Orleans, lines up Eastern oysters for customers on May 3, 2010. The oysters were harvested from Louisiana waters before the oil slick caused fishing and harvesting closures. (David Friedman / Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Alabama National Guardsmen assemble a barrier to block oil on Dauphin Island, Ala., on May 4, 2010. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Rob Lewis, center, and Dexter Strange unload crab traps from their boats on May 5, 2010, after having to dump their catch in Shell Beach, La., due to the oil spill. (Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Conservationist Rick Steiner collects a sample of oily water near Breton Island, La., on May 5, 2010. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Some of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead is seen on May 6, 2010. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Greenpeace marine biologist Paul Horsman surveys oil pooled between reeds and brush at the mouth of the Mississippi River on May 17, 2010. (Hans Deryk / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats some 15 miles northwest of the spill site on May 18, 2010. (Hans Deryk / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, center, and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, right, tour the oil impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19, 2010. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Nesting pelicans are seen as oil washes ashore May 22 on an island that is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well as terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills in Louisiana's Barataria Bay. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A BP cleanup crew removes oil from a beach at Port Fourchon, La., on May 23. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A sign warns the public away from the beach on Grand Isle, La., on May 23. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Oil streaks into the Gulf of Mexico on May 26 near Brush Island, La. (Win Mcnamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. An image taken from a BP video feed shows a robotic arm using a wrench during the "top kill" procedure on May 27. The bid to stop the flow failed. (BP via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A brown pelican coated in heavy oil wallows in the surf on East Grand Terre Island, La., on June 4. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A worker cleans up oil in Plaquemines Parish, La., on June 4. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A cleanup worker picks up blobs of oil with absorbent snare on Queen Bess Island in Louisiana's Barataria Bay on June 4. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tar balls sit on the beach in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 5. (Dave Martin / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil in Grand Isle, La., on June 6. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. This protest at a BP gas station in Pensacola, Fla., on June 6 targeted the oil giant. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A dead sea turtle floats on a pool of oil in Barataria Bay off Louisiana on June 7. (Charlie Riedel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Jars of water mixed with oil collected off Louisiana and Alabama are stacked in front of Gulf Coast residents as they attend a news conference June 16 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Thick crude oil from the BP spill is seen in Barataria Bay near Port Sulphur, La., on June 20. (Erik S. Lesser / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. James McGee vacuums oil in Barataria Bay on June 20. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Out of work fishermen seeking to be hired as cleanup crew talk to BP representatives in Larose, La., on June 20. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. People line up in Pensacola, Fla., on June 26 to protest offshore oil drilling during a 'Hands Across the Sand' event. The protest took place in hundreds of cities across 30 countries. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. With no tourists to hire him, fishing guide Raymond Griffin eats lunch in a nearly empty cookhouse at Griffin Fishing Charters in Lafitte, La., on June 26. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A heavily oiled bird is rescued from the waters of Barataria Bay on June 26. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. In this image taken from video on July 12, oil flows out of the top of the transition spool, which was placed into the gushing wellhead prior to the well being capped. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Oily water washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 26. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: A year after the spill


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