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Gulf of Mexico fire: Dramatic blaze renews safety concerns for US pipelines

Thousands of miles of offshore oil and gas pipelines lack ‘robust oversight,’ watchdog warned

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 05 July 2021 19:48 BST
Gulf of Mexico: an undersea gas pipeline ruptured causing the sea to 'catch fire'
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A ring of fire on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico following a ruptured gas pipeline has renewed scrutiny into the state of thousands of miles of oil and gas infrastructure in the gulf.

Footage of the fire – appearing to boil the ocean’s surface with bright orange flames – went viral on 2 July after a leak was reported near a platform used for offshore drilling by Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex. In a surreal scene, the blaze appeared to dwarf three firefighting boats blasting water cannons.

In the US, however, 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, according to a recent federal government watchdog report.

The same goes for more than 18,000 miles of abandoned pipelines and wells, part of a vast ocean of infrastructure without any clear decommissioning standards or process for removal.

A report from the US Government Accountability Office found that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) under the US Interior Department has allowed the oil and gas industry to leave 97 per cent of unused pipelines in place since the 1960s.

“Such a high rate of approval indicates that this is not an exception, however, but rather that decommissioning-in-place has been the norm for decades,” the report found.

The bureau does “not observe any pipeline decommissioning activities, inspect pipelines after their decommissioning, or verify most of the pipeline decommissioning evidence submitted,” according to the report. “If these pipelines later pose safety or environmental risks, there’s no clear funding source for their removal.”

Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, 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 the day after the 11th anniversary of the BP oil disaster and explosion at the Deepwater Horizon platform that killed 11 people and spewed millions of gallons of crude into the gulf for weeks.

The bureau – which was created in the wake of that catastrophe – “recognizes the importance of active pipeline integrity and is continually seeking to address the safety and environmental risks associated with decommissioning,” it said in a statement in response to the report.

The fire on 2 July was roughly 150 yards from the Ku Maloob Zaap drilling platform in the Yucatan peninsula, after a leak was reported around 5.15am. Workers began to “close the interconnection valves in the pipeline, extinguishing the fire and the gas emanation” to control the leak by 10.45am, more than five hours later, the company reported.

Pemex provided few details about the leak but pledged to “carry out a root cause analysis of this incident,” while the chief of Mexico’s oil safety regulator claimed that the incident “did not generate any spill” but did not explain what caused a fire on the water’s surface.

Ku Maloob Zaap is Pemex’s biggest crude oil producer, accounting for more than 40 per cent of its daily output of nearly 1.7m barrels.

The scale of that production poses “an extreme risk for accidents,” according to Greenpeace Mexico.

Gustavo Ampugnani, the organisation’s executive director, said 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.”

In 2015, four workers were killed, 16 were injured and more than 300 people had to be evacuated after an explosion on the company’s Abkatun A-Permanente platform in the gulf.

And in January 2013, an explosion caused by a gas build up at the company’s Mexico City headquarters killed 37 people.

The company also is saddled with $107bn in debt, making it one of the most indebted oil companies in the world, as of 2019.

In the US, legal battles over company responsibility for cleanup costs have played out in bankruptcy courts, as companies look 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 fuel industries.

Lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources introduced the Offshore Pipeline Safety Act, which would require BSEE to charge an annual fee against owners of offshore pipelines to fund pipeline removal if they file for bankruptcy, among other measures.

“The business model of drilling our oceans for a quick buck and sticking the public with the cleanup bill is coming to an end,” Chair Raul Grijalva said in a statement. “Our oceans are there for all of us, not just oil and gas companies, and if they can’t behave responsibly on their own, this Congress will be happy to step in and set some overdue boundaries.”

During his campaign, President Joe Biden vowed to ban “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters” as part of his energy and environmental justice platform.

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 from Louisiana’s Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and 12 other state attorneys general plays out in court.

The administration is performing a review of the state of oil and gas drilling in the US, which Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told members of Congress will be due in “early summer”. The agency will then “outline next steps and recommendations” for Congress, according to a statement from the agency.

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