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Pipelines left in the Gulf of Mexico represent safety, environmental hazards: GAO

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Washington — Approximately 18,000 miles of decommissioned oil and gas pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico pose safety and environmental risks, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

That report was released April 19 – the eve of the 11th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, where 11 workers were killed and dozens more were injured after an explosion and fire on the oil rig.

Decommissioned pipelines can contain oil or gas that can leak, and Gulf currents can diffuse that material, making detection of leaks more difficult. The report notes that only 3% of decommissioned pipelines on the Gulf seafloor have been removed since the 1960s.

“Generally, pipelines must be removed from the seafloor,” the report states. “The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, however, may allow pipelines to be decommissioned-in-place if certain criteria are met. Such a high rate of approval indicates that this is not an exception, however, but rather that decommissioning-in-place has been the norm for decades.”

In addition, GAO notes that:

  • BSEE doesn’t ensure operators meet decommissioning standards (e.g., cleaning pipelines) because it doesn’t observe any pipeline decommissioning activities, inspect pipelines after they’re decommissioned or verify most of the pipeline decommissioning evidence submitted.
  • BSEE doesn’t monitor the condition and location of pipelines after their decommissioning-in-place, reducing its ability to mitigate any long-term risks, such as pipeline exposure or movement.
  • If pipelines decommissioned-in-place are later found to pose risks, no funding source exists for their removal.

BSEE has acknowledged, according to the report, that its pipeline regulations are outdated, and the agency has made “limited progress” in revising them since announcing in 2013 plans to do so.


GAO calls on BSEE to “further develop, finalize and implement updated pipeline regulations to address long-standing limitations regarding its ability to address safety and environmental risks associated with pipeline decommissioning.”

The Department of Interior agrees with the recommendations.

“Interior has made progress toward ensuring that operations in the Gulf Coast remain safe and environmentally responsible, but we also know there is more work to be done,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in an April 20 statement commemorating the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

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