As the longest offshore oil spill in U.S. history creeps toward its 15th year, the federal government is preparing to launch a determined effort to contain the oil and cap the leaking wells.
But the energy company responsible for cleaning up the spill has gone to court to stop efforts to fix a leak that is sending hundreds of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Taylor Energy of New Orleans recently filed four lawsuits against the Interior Department, U.S. Coast Guard and a private contractor to contest their assessment that the spill is catastrophic and to shut down plans to cap more than two dozen leaking wells.
The wells were torn open in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan triggered powerful currents that collapsed the walls of a deepwater canyon. The tumbling walls slammed into an oil production platform that Taylor Energy operated 12 miles off the Louisiana coast, burying most of its 25 wells.
According to one estimate, up to 700 barrels of oil per day are flowing into the Gulf, rivaling the catastrophic 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill. The estimate is based on an analysis by Oscar Garcia-Pineda, a specialist in remote sensing of oil spills, which the government accepted but Taylor Energy disputes.
The BP disaster leaked 4 million barrels over five months. If Garcia-Pineda’s estimate is correct, the Taylor spill amounts to 1.5 million barrels to 3.5 million barrels in more than 14 years.
A day after The Washington Post revealed Garcia-Pineda’s analysis, the Coast Guard issued Taylor Energy an ultimatum: hire a company to build a device to contain the oil or face a fine of up to $4,000 per day. When the energy company failed to negotiate a contract, the Coast Guard took over the cleanup effort.
“The Coast Guard has federalized the portion of the spill that relates to containment,” Capt. Kristi Luttrell said in an email to The Post. Luttrell assumed command of the New Orleans-based station overseeing the spill and has taken a tougher stance against Taylor than her predecessors.
On Wednesday, during oral arguments for Taylor Energy’s case against Couvillion Group, the private contractor hired by the Coast Guard to contain the spill, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle wanted to know why the company is seeking to block efforts to clean it up. Taylor Energy’s attorney said the company believes the plan won’t work and could make the problem worse.
“Look, you tried,” Lemelle said, according to a report by Channel 4WWL News in New Orleans. “But it’s still going on after all this time. Let’s get someone else to look at this.”
Lemelle asked the Coast Guard’s lawyer why the cleanup is taking so long. “This occurred in 2004. How long does it take the government to decide what to do?” The attorney, Erica Zilioni, said new data shows that three leaks are ejecting more oil into the environment than previously thought. Before now, the government had relied almost solely on reports from contractors hired by Taylor Energy to estimate the size of the spill.
Couvillion Group plans to build a device to contain oil on the surface of the Gulf and possibly find a path to some of the wells through the sediment. The $7 million cost will be extracted from the $440 million that remains in a trust fund Taylor Energy established for the cleanup in 2008. Couvillion did not respond to a request for comment.
In the years since the fund was established, Taylor Energy has spent millions of dollars to recover its flattened oil platform and cap nine of 25 wells. For nearly a decade, the company convinced the federal government and its experts that digging into the sediment to cap the remaining buried wells was too risky because it might unleash oil trapped there — arguing that little oil was reaching the surface.
But in recent months, the government’s cleanup effort, run by a Unified Command of four federal agencies, determined that capping the wells is less risky if pockets of oil released by digging can be contained. The Unified Command also discounts the company’s assessment based on aerial surveys that virtually no oil is oozing from its former lease site.
Aerial surveys alone “can have a high degree of uncertainty” based on sea conditions, Luttrell said. Recent studies of the site, known as Mississippi Canyon 20, based on satellite data and samples from the water’s surface, “suggests oil discharge amounts far exceed those from overflights and have the potential to be in the hundreds of barrels per day.”
The Coast Guard forged ahead with the Couvillion Group of Belle Chasse, La. According to its website, the Couvillion Group responded to the 2010 BP oil spill a few miles north of the Taylor site, deploying and managing “marine equipment, vessels, personnel and logistics for BP, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Park Service” for the extended cleanup.
For the current spill, the contractor completed a survey of the canyon site in December and a system it designed to contain oil “is currently in the testing and acceptance phase,” Luttrell said.
Taylor Energy asked the judge to stop the work, saying in a statement emailed to The Washington Post that “the Coast Guard has turned its back on sound science” that the company presented “to embrace a deeply-flawed theory, which is now driving response actions that could cause an environmental catastrophe.”
The company called the Coast Guard’s reversal abrupt, and said that it was abandoning an opinion by government and private experts who said attempts to cap the wells could cause more harm than good.
“The Coast Guard is basing potentially dangerous response actions on grossly exaggerated oil volume estimates," the company argued. Its wells were nearly depleted and were not capable of producing the amount of oil Garcia-Pineda claims.
Garcia-Pineda provided his analysis as an expert witness for the government in a court case that resulted from a 2016 lawsuit filed by Taylor Energy. In that case, the company is seeking to reclaim the hundreds of millions of dollars that remain in the cleanup trust.
For the analysis, Garcia-Pineda spent weeks at the Taylor Energy site studying rainbow-colored slicks, measuring crude and reviewing satellite images. There were several instances, he wrote, when the National Response Corp., which relies on pollution reports from companies such as Taylor Energy, presented low estimates on the same days he found heavy layers of oil in the field.
Fumes from oil on the surface were so intense that researchers said they needed respirators to study the damage.
“There is abundant evidence that supports the fact that these reports from NRC are incorrect,” Garcia-Pineda wrote. Later he said: “My conclusion is that NRC reports are not reliable.”
Under its obligations with the Interior Department and the Oil Pollution Act, Taylor Energy is required to cap each of the wells that broke open and the government is determined to hold the company to the agreement.
Taylor Energy says it filed its December litigation for two reasons: It wants to “head off action by the Coast Guard and Couvillion Group that can cause considerable environmental damage.” Also, the company believes the government’s rapid course reversal from a hands-off approach to aggressive moves to clean up the spill is unfair.
A hands-off approach would also spare Taylor Energy the expensive cost of trying harder to stop any potential leak.
None of the many lawsuits Taylor Energy has filed since 2004 “seek to relieve the company of its regulatory obligations,” the statement said. The company is committed to protecting the Gulf’s fragile ecosystem using science.
But during a town hall meeting in 2012, the company’s president, William Pecue, said something different. The government should admit that the remaining wells could not be capped and that the funds in the trust should be handed over, Pecue said.
The event that caused the spill, he declared, was “an act of God.”