Group sues federal government, claims it ignores harms of idle offshore oil and gas infrastructure

NEW ORLEANS — An environmental group is suing the federal government to force the U.S. Department of Interior to reassess the long-term environmental effects of delays in shutting down inactive oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity on Thursday, argues that the department has failed to properly account for harms caused by deteriorating, unused wells and other inactive oil and gas infrastructure over the past two decades.

“What we have now in the Gulf of Mexico is a mess of leaky wells, rusty platforms, and corroding pipelines created by the oil and gas industry, and that’s unacceptable,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans program litigation director for the nonprofit. “The industry makes a huge profit off what they extract from public waters in the Gulf, and it’s only fair that they be the ones to pay for clean-up rather than leaving it to the taxpayers.”

The lawsuit includes the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees offshore safety and environmental regulations, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which manages oil and gas development in federal waters.

A spokesperson for the department, which includes both bureaus, declined to comment.

The Department of Interior last assessed the impact of decommissioning offshore oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 and 1985.

The lawsuit claims those studies are “outdated” and falsely assumed that inactive Gulf wells would be permanently plugged and platforms removed within the timespan established by federal law — no later than 3 years for wells and 5 years for platforms.

More than 2,700 oil wells and 500 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico had missed federal deadlines for decommissioning as of June 2023, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office cited in the lawsuit.

Another GAO report from 2021 found that the federal government has authorized over 97% of seafloor pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico to be decommissioned in place, even though pipelines are supposed to be removed from the seafloor.

“Once they’re no longer being used, their supposed to be cleaned and capped and removed,” said Frank Rusco, director of natural resources and environment for GAO. “What we found is that Interior had not effectively implemented regulations, they had just sort of defaulted to leaving the stuff in place.”

Federal law requires a new assessment should be conducted when new information or changed circumstances indicate environmental impacts not previously considered — such as the norm of leaving pipelines in place or overdue decommissioning for other infrastructure, Center for Biological Diversity’s Monsell points out.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management states on its website that it is preparing a new assessment but does not provide a timeline. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit argues that the idle offshore infrastructure threatens endangered and federally protected species in the Gulf of Mexico such as giant manta rays, loggerhead sea turtles and West Indian manatees. Aging drilling platforms and unplugged oil wells are known to increase the risk of pollution from spills and the release of greenhouse gases.

Scott Lauermann, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s national trade association, said the industry is committed to “responsible operations.”

“Our members continue to support a transparent and balanced regulatory framework that promotes responsible development of resources and the safe and timely decommissioning of infrastructure,” Lauermann said.

There are upwards of 2,200 active oil and gas leases across more than 12 million acres (4.86 million hectares) of federal waters, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the vast majority of offshore oil and gas is produced in federal waters comes from the Gulf of Mexico.


Jack Brook is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Brook on the social platform X: @jack_brook96.

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