An oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has gone unfixed for so long that it could become one of the worst offshore disasters in United States history, as first reported by The Washington Post.
Since 2004, when an oil-production platform owned by Taylor Energy collapsed during Hurricane Ivan, between 300 and 700 barrels of oil per day have contaminated the gulf mere miles from the Louisiana coast. Even today, many of the wells have not been capped, and federal officials predict that the spill will continue through the century. If not stopped, the Taylor spill could surpass BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster as the worst our nation has known.
As the crude continues to flow into the Gulf, the Trump administration is proposing the largest expansion of oil and gas leases. The plans include growth in the Atlantic coast—where there has been no drilling in over half a century, and where hurricanes hit twice as often as they do in the Gulf.
In 1995, Taylor Energy took over a massive oil-production platform, originally operated by BP. By massive, we’re talking like 40-stories-tall massive. Then, on Sept. 15, 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf with 145 mph winds and waves that topped 70 feet. The Category 4 storm shook the underwater floor, and the platform and barrels of oil stacked on its deck fell with the shifting ground.
Taylor Energy reported the spill to the Coast Guard, which monitored the site for more than half a decade without telling the public. Four years after the leak started, in July 2008 documents made available by a lawsuit, the Coast Guard informed the Taylor Energy that the spill was “a continuous, unsecured crude oil discharge” that posed “a significant threat to the environment.”
Taylor Energy made a deal with federal officials to establish a $666 million trust to stop the spill. The contractors were asked to find the wells through vision-impairing mud and debris, and cap them. Taylor Energy was forbidden from drilling through the mess to avoid striking a pipe or well that would make things even worse, a precaution that slowed the operation. The company spent a fortune plugging a third of the wells and keeping the spill from rising, but the oil continued to leak.
Due to the company’s efforts to keep the scandal under wraps, the Taylor Energy spill is still largely overlooked outside the state of Louisiana. In fact, the spill was hidden for six years before environmentalists stumbled upon it while monitoring the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, which occurred a few miles north of the Taylor site in 2010.
Under the Oil Pollution Act, companies are obligated to report hazardous spills to the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center (NRC), which maintains a database of chemical pollution. No law requires the companies or the federal government to raise public awareness, but the Clean Water Act calls for “public participation in the… enforcement of any regulation.”
Only three years ago, an Associated Press investigation in 2015 determined that the spill was much worse than the company had reported. Taylor Energy had argued that the leak was two gallons per day; the Coast Guard finally said it was 84 gallons or more. But the newest estimate dwarfs that: between 300 and 700 barrels per day. Each barrel contains 42 gallons.
Taylor Energy has argued that there is no proof that the wells are leaking; however, last month, the Justice Department submitted an independent analysis showing that the spill was much greater than what the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center (NRC) claimed, using data from the oil company themselves.
The federal government still does not know the extent of the spills’ impact on marine life. No economic analyses have been done to show the value of the oil lost as it flows into the sea. It is currently unclear if the oil is ruining marshland and making its way onto beaches.
What we do know is this: For every 1,000 wells in state and federal waters, there is an average of 20 uncontrolled releases of oil, or “blowouts,” each year.
Needless to say, several officials on the Atlantic coast are anxious about Trump’s proposal to offer federal offshore leases.
As climate change worsens and open waters get warmer, hurricanes are becoming more frequent and dangerous. Beginning with Ivan in 2004, several hurricanes battered or destroyed over 150 platforms in just the four years that followed.
“Let’s talk about what’s happening in the Gulf before we move into the Atlantic,” demands Chris Eaton, an attorney at Earthjustice, the nation’s largest nonprofit environmental law organization.