Petroleum

Hurricane Ivan, Taylor Energy, and the 16-Year Spill That’s Still Leaking

Hurricane Ivan was the strongest storm since Hurricane Andrew 12 years before.  And while hurricanes are a regular occurrence in the Gulf of Mexico – to be expected and prepared for by every producer operating in the Gulf – Ivan’s wave heights blew through the 100-year design criteria intended to weather the storm.  Multiple rigs in the Mississippi Canyon Block 20 area reported damage, but the one sustaining the most extensive destruction kept it hidden for years.

API RP A2

Spills, leaks, and fires are a common occurrence in the Gulf of Mexico.  Though the numbers seem to have been going down over the course of the last few years, the median number of incidents involving loss of well control hovers somewhere around five per year.  That’s in addition to the roughly 20 or so spills and gas releases per year, regular fatalities, and fires or explosions every three days on average (BSEE, 2017). Excluding evacuations and collisions, this is all suffice to say that the oil and gas industry is accustomed to its share of consistent danger, and that the Gulf is no stranger to regular oil spills on a statistical basis.  It comes with the territory as one of the costs of doing business in the Gulf. Likewise, the at times extreme weather conditions are also part of the territory. According to the American Petroleum Institute’s Recommended Practices – first published in 1969 – in order to withstand extreme conditions in regards to wind, waves, tides, currents, and seafloor movements, producers should adhere to what is known as the 100-year design criteria.  Determined based on historical meteorological events, the criteria specifies that a platform should be able to withstand the total force from specific environmental conditions that have an occurrence probability of one percent (hence one in one hundred) per year. Additionally, platforms and rigs should have a safety margin of 1.5 or more beyond the minimum 100-year criteria, ideally positioning them safely even under record-breaking circumstances.  Reassessed every five years, the API RP version A2 before Hurricane Ivan stipulated preparations for waves 70 feet high, 92 mile per hour winds, and currents of 2.1 knots (Offshore, 2005). The weakness in the Mississippi Canyon Block 20 area of the Gulf of Mexico, however, was more unique. The Mississippi River’s entrance into the Gulf in the MC-20 block deposited larger amounts of silt onto the seafloor than in other areas of the Gulf. With platforms driving their foundations deep into the mud, ocean floor mudslides – a known occurrence in the area – posed a larger threat to the stability of Block 20 platforms in the event of exacerbated water conditions.  Hurricane Ivan blew past the API’s 100-year design criteria, and seven platforms in the Gulf were damaged. While other rigs sustained surface blows – such as mangled living quarters, helipads, broken spars, and loose moorings, none of their fundamental structures failed. The Taylor Energy rig, meanwhile, was swept off of its foundations.  

Taylor’s MC-20 Saratoga 

The Taylor Energy rig, once operated by British Petroleum, was purchased in 1995 by Patrick F. Taylor, philanthropist and businessman.  His work in creating the “Taylor Plan” to provide academic scholarships is still in use today, known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.  Taylor Energy, meanwhile, was once touted as the only individually owned oil exploration company in the Gulf of Mexico, and the rig made Taylor rich. Attached to 28 oil wells, the Saratoga rig stood 40 stories high in over 400 feet of water, 11 miles from the Louisiana coast.  It’s eight legs were pile-driven into the muddy seabed. The rig complied with the API’s 100-year criteria, yet it was not prepared for Ivan. The Category 4 storm hit with 145 mile per hour winds and 71 foot high waves that pummeled the platform every 16 seconds, roiling the seabed and creating a mudslide that ripped the Saratoga from its foundations.  Found lying horizontally on the ocean floor almost a thousand feet from its original location, its 28 wells were covered in a mass of mud and broken pipes, seeping oil.  

The Coverup

Efforts to plug the wells were stymied by the sheer volume of silt and debris on top of the wreckage.  After initially notifying the Coast Guard, Taylor Energy spent $13 million to unsuccessfully stem the flow of the leaks through the 150 feet of muck.  They managed to plug 25 of the Saratoga’s pipes, and then abandoned the endeavor. It wasn’t until four years later, when a geological survey showed significant amounts of oil still surfacing in the area, that the United States Minerals Management Service ordered Taylor Energy to address the issue, citing it as a “[continuous and] significant threat to the environment.”  A unified command was initiated between Taylor and the government – including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Coast Guard – in order to address the issue. Instructed to put up money to fund the recovery venture, Taylor placed $666 billion in a trust. Between the partners, operations were launched to recover the derelict platform from its watery tomb, as well as perform “well interventions” that would succeed in closing nine of the 28 wells.  A remaining three were capped. Averting attempts to seal further wells, Taylor forbid any boring or drilling into the mud for fear of striking a well and worsening the damage, and details regarding the unconventional “interventions” were never released. Meanwhile, the three caps used to contain the unplugged wells failed a few years later, prompting the Coast Guard to order a replacement proposal from Taylor that was never delivered. After selling off its remaining assets in 2008 to Korea National Oil and Samsung Construction & Trading, Taylor endeavored to keep its disaster a secret, citing reputational damage and the necessity of protecting proprietary information about its business practices.  Even after a 2009 study provided to Taylor revealed “an acceptable risk to humans” if fish from the area were consumed, the public was never informed.  

BP and Taylor Energy: The Truth Comes Out

The Taylor spill remained hidden for six years.  Leaking oil into the Gulf every day, in 2010 British Petroleum’s record-breaking catastrophe a few miles south sparked a flurry of new attention in the area.  With Gulf Restoration Network monitors flying over the Gulf to track the extent of the damage from Deepwater Horizon, environmentalists noticed something awry – oil slicks further north, and of different quality, that had nothing to do with the BP spill.  The slicks were tracked back to Taylor’s spotted history and its damaged wells. The associations responsible for water quality and marine health in the Gulf were livid, accusing both Taylor Energy and the Coast Guard of contriving a “secret deal inconsistent with national policy,” and citing their joint breach of the Clean Water Act, which clearly called for citizen involvement under such circumstances.  Taylor maintained that the spill was negligible, seeping as little as two and less than four gallons of oil a day, and in 2012 the Waterkeeper Alliance, Apalachicola Riverkeeper, and Louisiana Environmental Action Network sued Taylor Energy for their role in covering up the spill. 

Taking matters into their own hands, environmentalists began conducting independent studies to assess the damage. Over the course of the next few years, estimates from the Coast Guard (provided by information from Taylor) would vary widely. Originally conceding to just 12 gallons of oil per day, in 2014, Taylor Energy – compelled by the Coast Guard to improve the accuracy of its estimates from their oversea flights – reported oil sheens “eight square miles with 91 gallons of oil” versus their previous claims that purported the sheens were just two square miles and 11 gallons of oil.  Taylor ultimately presented their “final resolution” that implied the best course of action was to “not take any affirmative action” due to “environmental risks,” but in 2015 the Gulf’s watchdog associations won their suit. Their victory in court compelled Taylor to provide information about the spill to the public, opening public discourse channels, and impeding Taylor from obfuscating any further information regarding the leaks from its wells. The same year, the Associated Press – after digging into more than 2,300 pages of reports – obtained a statement from the Coast Guard admitting estimates that topped 75 gallons leaking daily from the Saratoga’s encased wells.  More than six times the amounts reported by the Coast Guard in 2013 and over twenty times Taylor’s initial claims, independent analysts suggested the actual totals could be anywhere from 37 to 900 gallons of oil leaking into Gulf waters each day.

Taylor Energy Fights Back

Regardless of the public’s claims, Taylor – down to one employee and existing solely to respond to the spill – refuted the fact that the wells were still leaking.  Insisting that no scientific evidence had been presented to them to suggest the wells were active, president William Pecue maintained that the “residual” amounts of oil surfacing above the damaged site were merely originating from oil-soaked silt at the bottom of the ocean floor, and that the gas bubbles being observed were the result of bacterial breakdown.  Additionally, the destruction of the well was indeed not Taylor’s fault – the hurricane was an act of God, and there was nothing else to be done. Aggressively pursuing this stance, Taylor Energy sued the Interior Department saying it wanted the remainder of its trust fund – which had outlaid about $200 of its $666 million – back.  

The Government Steps In

The move was not a wise one.  In response to litigation, the Department of Justice conducted its own study of the Taylor oil wells.  Unsurprisingly, its 2018 findings revealed the highest numbers of leakage to date, totaling up to 700 barrels (or 29,400 gallons) of oil per day.  These numbers brought the Taylor spill – already the longest in history – in line with and potentially over the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, suggesting the total amount of oil released into the Gulf over the course of its muffled 14 years was anywhere from 1.5 to 3.5 million barrels of oil.  The Coast Guard demanded immediate action. With the release of the September report, they wanted Taylor to provide a plan of action by November. Plans submitted by Taylor Energy were determined to be unacceptable. The Coast Guard, refusing to delay longer, moved forward in selecting their own candidate to implement a solution on November 9th.  The man for the job was Timothy Couvillion, and his initial review of the situation on the Saratoga’s seafloor was stunning. Describing the release of oil as a “volcano” that was as wide as a basketball court, Couvillion’s underwater video footage showed millions of oily black droplets careening through the water to the surface. Refusing to acknowledge the assessment and purporting that the Department’s estimates were grossly exaggerated, Taylor Energy sued both Coast Guard Captain Kristi Luttrell – for making the designation without their input – and Couvillion, citing what they perceived to be his lack of qualifications, recklessness, and negligence.

Containment

Despite the seven million dollar bill being unwillingly footed by Taylor Energy, the project moved forward.  With Luttrell demanding a rapid pace, Couvillion and his team spent a week holed up in one room to come up with an immediate plan for mitigating the leak.  In March, a test system was put in place to try to contain the leak, vacuuming up seawater, gas, and oil and spitting gas and water back out while siphoning off oil to a nearby containment tank.  The system worked, and by the time it became fully operational, it had prevented 63,000 gallons of oil from spilling into the Gulf in just two months. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – which had been sued the previous July for failing to come out with a timely report on the Taylor spill – released its findings.  Substantiating the large numbers of previous studies (though not as high as the Department of Justice’s study), NOAA disclosed that their estimates regarding Taylor Energy’s remaining 16 wells were 380-4,500 gallons a day, and additionally refuted Pecue’s claims that the pollution was coming from sediment. Using an underwater meter, rather than relying on overwater observation, NOAA confirmed that Taylor’s estimates were vastly misleading – by a hundred times at best, and a thousand times at worst.  

Quagmire

As it did for most of the previous 15 years, Taylor Energy insisted the science was wrong.  Leaning on its mission to protect the environment, they condemned any further action to remediate the site.  Its litigation with the Department of the Interior, meanwhile, is still ongoing. Analysts say the cleanup of the Saratoga rig’s fatal hit in the midst of chastising winds and waves almost two decades ago is being hindered by red tape more than technical ability, with Taylor Energy fighting tooth and nail against the government to stall its financial outflows.  The temporary solution put in place by Couvillion and his team collects 1,200 gallons of escaping oil per day, but its collection is impeded when tides are strong or under other unideal conditions. Meanwhile, it will deteriorate with time, requiring a more permanent solution in the future.

Behemoths like BP may, while painfully, be able to afford to mitigate the financial responsibility of their infamous disasters, while smaller companies have less leeway with which to weather the financial risks of doing business in the oil industry.  The owner of Taylor Energy, Patrick F. Taylor, passed away just two months after the landfall of Ivan and the collapse of the Saratoga rig. The foundation that still exists in his name, standing as a charitable extension of the Taylor Energy Company, exalts oil and gas as having been the determining factor in its ability to create the amount of good in the world that it has and the difference it has been able to make in the lives of students across Louisiana. Taylor Energy LLC has reduced their website to the management of its crisis, redirecting to a page dedicated to defending its response to the MC-20 incident.  The wells in the Gulf, meanwhile, continue – while more slowly – to leak. Seeping into the Gulf for 16 years, analysts estimate that prolonged legal battles with the state could cause an already record-breaking spill to continue for decades. If allowed to bubble out unimpeded through the murky Mississippi silt, some estimate the Taylor wells could continue to leak for a century.

Sources

BSEE. (2017). “Offshore Incident Statistics.” Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Fears, D. (2018). “A 14-year-long oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico verges on becoming one of the worst in U.S. history.” The Washington Post. 

Fears, D. (2019). “Timmy Couvillion’s invention is helping contain a 14-year gulf oil spill.” The Washington Post.

Offshore. (2005). “Gulf of Mexico.” Offshore Magazine.

Schleifstein, M. (2013). “Taylor Energy oil platform, destroyed in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan, is still leaking in the Gulf.” NOLA.

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