HOUSTON (CN) – Fed by wells seeping oil since a hurricane toppled an offshore platform in 2004, an oil sheen off the coast of Louisiana has become a Gulf of Mexico landmark. A new government report disputes the driller’s claims the site is leaking an average of just 2.4 gallons per day.
Oil and gas have been leaking from the site 10 miles south of the Louisiana coast since Hurricane Ivan triggered a subsea mudslide in September 2004 that knocked over Taylor Energy’s platform and broke several well pipes connected to it.
The area is called the MC20 site, which is short for Mississippi Canyon Block 20. The federal government splits up Gulf of Mexico acreage under its jurisdiction into blocks and puts the blocks out to bid to oil drillers.
The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), released a report Monday that estimates the site is releasing from 378 to 4,536 gallons of oil a day, far more than the daily average of 2.4 gallons Taylor Energy claims.
Oil spillage from the site had largely faded from the public consciousness until researchers monitoring satellite footage of the 2010 BP oil spill noticed “persistent oil slicks that appeared unrelated to the 2010 spill,” according to the report.
New Orleans-based Taylor Energy sold all its oil and gas assets in 2008 and funded a $666 million trust fund to pay for plugging of the damaged oil wells and dismantling and removing the oil platform from the Gulf seafloor. “Taylor Energy exists today solely to address this incident,” according to the company.
It claims the oil pollution is coming from oil-soaked sediment rising into the water column from a pit that has formed, through erosion, on the seafloor around Taylor’s platform.
The company says any methane gas detected at the surface is “biogenic in nature,” produced by living organisms.
But the study’s authors said in the report they used sonar technology and a device that analyzed bubbles of oil and gas placed in the water column, and found the chemical makeup of the hydrocarbons measures precludes that they came from sediments.
“Oil collected from the water column was found to be mildly biodegraded as compared to sediments at the perimeter of the erosional pit, which are severely biodegraded,” the report states.
It continues: “This indicates that the sediments collected for this study cannot be the primary source of oil in the water column or the resulting surface sheen.”
There’s been speculation that the Taylor Energy spill has leaked more oil since 2004 than the BP oil spill did in 2010. BP’s well is estimated to have spilled more than 130 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil from the BP spill settled on 400 square miles of seafloor and washed up on shorelines from Florida to Texas. When combined with the chemicals used to disburse it, BP’s oil slick killed thousands of birds, and contaminated fish, shrimp and crabs.
But Andrew Mason, a NOAA physical scientist and one of the new report’s editors, told Courthouse News the report can’t be used to extrapolate how much oil has been spilled by the Taylor Energy site. The report is based on data collected in 2018.
“Extrapolating backwards is inappropriate as the conditions at the site since the original toppling of the platform now have varied considerably,” he said in an email.
Mason said the government plans to come up with an official estimate of the spill but that will entail bringing together a panel of experts, composed of both government employees and civilians, to analyze all the data.
“I do not know when that process will occur or who that panel of experts will be,” he said.
Despite the lack of clarity on the size of the spill, the good news is the resulting slick is shrinking.
Finding Taylor’s cleanup efforts lacking, the U.S. Coast Guard took over the job last year. It contracted Couvillion Group to build a containment system for the spill, which has reportedly sucked up 30,000 gallons of crude oil that seeped from the site.
“At this time the system is working and the once predominately large surface sheen has been reduced to barely visible. We will continue to monitor the containment system’s performance and make necessary adjustments to maximize containment of the spill,” the Coast Guard said in a May 16 statement.
Taylor Energy sued the Coast Guard and Couvillion Group in separate lawsuits in New Orleans federal court last December, claiming the government had grossly exaggerated the amount of oil seeping from the site.
It claims the safest solution is not to take any remedial actions that will disturb sediments and release trapped oil into the water column, and the appropriate response is to monitor the site to allow for “natural attenuation to gradually reduce the sheen and for sedimentation to encapsulate the trapped oil.”
But now that the containment system is up and running, the Coast Guard claims in court filings that the lawsuit is moot.
Taylor Energy said in a statement Monday the government is not sharing its research.
“The government released this report to the media but did not share it with Taylor Energy. In addition to this one instance, the government has refused to share with Taylor Energy any verifiable scientific information or data despite the company’s multiple requests. As the responsible party, it is unprecedented to be forced to file Freedom of Information Act requests for such information,” the company said. “Taylor Energy remains committed to its role as the responsible party and continues to advocate for a response that is grounded in science and prioritizes the well-being of the environment.”