A ring of fire on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico caused by a ruptured gas pipeline has renewed concern about the state of the gulf’s thousands of miles of oil and gas infrastructure.
Footage of the fire, which appeared to boil the ocean’s surface with bright orange flames, went viral on 2 July after a leak near a platform used for offshore drilling by Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex was reported. The blaze appeared to dwarf three firefighting boats blasting water cannons in a surreal scene. According to a recent federal government watchdog report, the agency tasked with supervising a sprawling network of active offshore oil and gas pipelines – nearly 9,000 miles of them in the Gulf of Mexico alone – does not have a “robust oversight” process or require any below-surface inspections.
The same can be said for more than 18,000 miles of abandoned pipelines and wells, which are part of a vast ocean of infrastructure with no clear decommissioning standards or removal process. According to a report from the US Government Accountability Office, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which is part of the US Interior Department, has allowed the oil and gas industry to leave 97 percent of unused pipelines in place since the 1960s.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s ocean program director, Miyoko Sakashita, said in a statement that the report “shows how corporations profit from polluting our water and air, leaving the rest of us to pay the price.”
The report was released on the 11th anniversary of the BP oil disaster and explosion at the Deepwater Horizon platform, which killed 11 people and spilled millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico for weeks. The bureau, which was established in the aftermath of the disaster, stated in a statement in response to the report that it “recognizes the importance of active pipeline integrity and is constantly seeking to address the safety and environmental risks associated with decommissioning.”
After a leak was reported around 5.15 a.m. on July 2, the fire was about 150 yards from the Ku Maloob Zaap drilling platform in the Yucatan peninsula. Workers began “closing the interconnection valves in the pipeline, extinguishing the fire and gas emanation” at 10.45 a.m., more than five hours later, to control the leak, according to the company. Ku Maloob Zaap is Pemex’s largest crude oil producer, accounting for nearly 40% of the company’s daily output of nearly 1.7 million barrels.
The organization’s executive director, Gustavo Ampugnani, stated in a statement that “as part of the fossil fuel extractivist model, these are the risks we face on a daily basis and which call for a change in the energy model.”
After an explosion on the company’s Abkatun A-Permanente platform in the Gulf in 2015, four workers were killed, 16 were injured, and more than 300 people had to be evacuated. In addition, 37 people were killed in a gas explosion at the company’s Mexico City headquarters in January 2013.
In addition, the company has $107 billion in debt, making it one of the most indebted oil companies in the world as of 2019.
Legal battles over company responsibility for cleanup costs have played out in bankruptcy courts in the United States, as companies seek to profit by offloading billions of dollars in such costs to other oil and gas entities amid shifting political sands and the fates of fossil fuels industries.
Lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources introduced the Offshore Pipeline Safety Act, which would require BSEE to charge owners of offshore pipelines an annual fee to fund pipeline removal if they go bankrupt, among other things.
As part of his energy and environmental justice platform, President Joe Biden pledged during his campaign to prohibit “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.”
A federal judge blocked his administration’s suspension of new oil and gas leases in federal lands and waters, and issued an injunction against the US Department of Interior from “implementing the pause” while the case brought by Louisiana’s Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and 12 other state attorneys general is heard.
The administration is conducting a review of the state of oil and gas drilling in the United States, which Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told members of Congress would be completed in “early summer.” According to a statement from the agency, the agency will then “outline next steps and recommendations” for Congress.