As It Happens

Study says longest oil spill in U.S. history could be drastically worse than rig owner claims

Fourteen years after an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a new study estimates that up to 4,500 gallons of oil had been leaking out every day — a much larger figure than the energy company had reported.

Taylor Energy estimated less than 5 gallons of oil leaked daily; new study says figure is far higher

The wake of a supply vessel heading towards a working platform crosses over an oil sheen drifting from the site of the former Taylor Energy oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)


A new study says a 2004 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was drastically worse than the oil company had claimed.

Taylor Energy, the owner of an oil platform that toppled off Louisiana's coast in 2004, had long maintained the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico was negligible — anywhere between 2.4 and 4 gallons of oil and gas a day.

But a new federal study, issued on Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Florida State University, estimated that the company was leaking up to 4,500 gallons of oil daily.

The oil platform was destroyed nearly 15 years ago, after it was hit by a mudslide caused by Hurricane Ivan. The damage sheared off the wells and they have been leaking ever since.

"The spill is coming out at a rate of about between 50 and 100 barrels a day," Ian Macdonald, a professor of biological oceanography at Florida State University who worked on the study.

A support ship related to the collection of oil from over the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well transitions through a sheen of oil as workers try to stem the flow of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, June 12, 2010. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

"This is not a gusher like the BP oil spill, but it's still a steady source of pollution in the Gulf of Mexico."

'There was a lot of oil coming out'

Taylor Energy capped nine of the wells with cement, but MacDonald says there were about 25 wells in total.

"They didn't plug all of them. And the ones that remain, evidently, continue to leak," he told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

MacDonald's team used a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to examine a plume of gas that was rising from the corner of the platform.

"They drove us right into these plumes, and as soon as that happened we realized that yes, in fact, we were looking at a real oil spill because there was a huge curtain of bubbles — bubbles of oil and bubbles of gas — steadily rising past the camera of the ROV," he said.

"This was an 'aha' moment, and it confirmed what we really knew: that there was a lot of oil coming out."

Patches of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill are seen from an underwater vantage, in the Gulf of Mexico on June 7, 2010. (Rich Matthews/Associated Press)

Energy company disputes findings

MacDonald says procedural red tape, rather than scientific evidence, has been the biggest hurdle to plugging the ongoing spill.

He explained that in the event of an oil spill, the U.S. Coast Guard and the party responsible for the platform — Taylor Energy in this case — form a "unified command" to determine the next steps.

Taylor, however, has continued to dispute findings that contradict their conservative estimates of the amount of oil being lost.

"We knew that this was happening and we were able to demonstrate this. But the responsible party continues to resist and continues to throw doubt on our findings and apparently is going to continue a legal fight against the plugging and abandonment of the wells that that needs to go forward," MacDonald said.

Oil sheen is seen with vessels assisting near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Taylor told The Associated Press that it wants verifiable scientific data about the leak and a scientifically and environmentally sound solution. The company has pointed out that remaining pipes are buried under so much oily and treacherous silt that stopping any leaks would do more environmental damage than letting them be.

The company, which is fighting a federal order to stop the seepage, also says any oil rising from the site is from oil-soaked sediment and any gas is produced by living organisms.

Researchers said the oil cannot be from sediment because it's only mildly biodegraded.

Red tape impeding immediate action

After seeing the ROV video from MacDonald's team, the Coast Guard hired an independent contractor to install a containment system onto the legs of the derelict platform.

According to court papers, the system had captured more than 30,000 gallons (113,000 litres) of oil over 30 days.

"It's not a perfect system. So when there are strong currents or currents from particular directions, oil leaks out from around this containment structure and comes up in the water. So it's only a temporary fix."

MacDonald says the rest of the leaking wells should be capped in the same manner as the original nine that Taylor capped at the outset of the spill.

"I'm confident that we have the scientific and technical data to demonstrate that there is a huge problem," he said.

"I remain in doubt as to whether or not our system can deal with this. If this goes back into the courts and there is resistance against the plug and abandonment process we could be waiting years more for a final solution to this issue."

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong.


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