Opinion | As Big Oil’s Mess in Our Oceans Grows, Their Bonding Requirements Should Too

House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), and Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) authored a new opinion piece for The Hill on a new U.S. Government Accountability report, which found that Big Oil is neglecting their responsibilities to properly decommission their offshore oil and gas infrastructure in a timely manner. The authors recommend that the U.S. Department of the Interior implement a stronger financial assurance rule to hold Big Oil accountable for cleaning up their mess.

Big Oil uses our ocean waters and coastlines as their own personal junkyard. For decades, oil and gas companies have been leaving behind their old, out-of-use equipment and infrastructure, forcing unnecessary risk and cleanup costs on American taxpayers. There’s no question it’s a problem, but until now, we didn’t know just how bad the problem was.   

At our request, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan government watchdog, recently took a closer look at the issue, and the findings are disturbing.?Their new report found that oil and gas companies have let the decommissioning of more than three-quarters of their end-of-lease and idle infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico alone go overdue. That’s more than 2,700 wells and 500 platforms being left to deteriorate and endanger our oceans, wildlife and Gulf Coast communities.  

When Big Oil neglects its decommissioning responsibilities — plugging offshore wells, dismantling and disposing of platforms, and returning the seafloor to pre-lease conditions — this infrastructure becomes increasingly vulnerable to damage from storms and corrosion, which can cause oil spills, leaks and toppling platforms, all within mere miles of communities and homes. Unplugged wells also release harmful emissions and pollution that pose real health risks to nearby residents. 

Sadly, Big Oil’s disregard for proper decommissioning isn’t all that surprising. Between the fossil fuel industry’s lies about climate change and abysmal track record on health and safety, they have proven time again that they can’t be left to their own devices.   

That’s where strong federal oversight and solid protections for the environment, communities and American families come in. As it stands now, however, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), which is responsible for overseeing decommissioning and enforcing these protections, is coming up short — and Big Oil is all too happy to take advantage. GAO’s report found that DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) is not adequately enforcing one-year decommissioning deadlines; more than 40 percent of wells and 50 percent of platforms on Gulf leases that ended between 2010 and 2022 are past due. 

The longer decommissioning is delayed, the more expensive decommissioning becomes — and the more likely Big Oil is to walk away and leave taxpayers with the ever-ballooning cleanup bill.  

Of course, oil and gas companies will claim they’re doing right by the American people, pointing to the bonds they put up in exchange for the privilege of drilling in our offshore waters. But as GAO’s report points out, those bonds are woefully inadequate. As of June 2023, DOI only held about $3.5 billion in supplemental bonds — a far cry from the $40-$70 billion in total estimated decommissioning costs. That means taxpayers could be on the hook for billions of dollars in financial risks if companies abandon their responsibilities. 

That financial risk is only going to continue to grow; according to DOI, nearly half of the approximately 8,000 wells and 1,600 platforms remaining offshore are approaching or past the end of their useful life.  

This is unacceptable. The oil and gas companies, which are making record-breaking profits using our offshore waters, should be assuming the risks of their operations, not the American people.  

Big Oil is a top polluter in low-income communities and communities of color across the nation. The burning of fossil fuels is the No. 1 cause of the climate crisis. Oil spills are responsible for some of the country’s most devastating environmental disasters in history. There’s no way Big Oil can ever repay the American people for the harm they’ve caused, but they can at least start by simply doing right by their decommissioning responsibilities.   

Until oil and gas companies are willing to step up to the plate themselves, DOI is well within its bounds to strengthen its enforcement of decommissioning deadlines, tighten its qualification criteria for lease sales, and, importantly, implement a stronger financial assurance rule. As long as bonding requirements and other financial assurances are insufficient, industry will be more than happy to ditch its equipment, forfeit the bonds and let taxpayers cover the difference.  

Thanks to the Biden administration’s bold action on climate, we are in the midst of a radical transformation to a cleaner, more just energy future that should mark the end of fossil fuels as we know it. But until that day comes, we can’t forget that Big Oil will keep playing its old, dirty tricks for as long as they can.  

Full accountability for Big Oil’s destruction feels insurmountable at times but holding them to their decommissioning responsibilities and financial assurances is a good first step.  

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Lindsay Gressard