Recommends inviting National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to review science and develop “fast-track options” to finally resolve dispute over the source of hydrocarbon release and proper response
A peer-reviewed study published today in Marine Pollution Bulletin refutes theories promoted by the U.S. Coast Guard that actively flowing wells are the source of the sheen at the MC-20 site in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. The study’s authors also call on federal agencies to enlist the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to examine all existing science and develop the proper means of response.
The study, “Harnessing a decade of data to inform future decisions: Insights into the ongoing hydrocarbon release at Taylor Energy’s Mississippi Canyon 20 site,” was authored by eight scientists, some of whom have been studying the MC-20 site for more than a decade.
“We specifically test and refute the hypothesis that surface sheens originate as discharge from one or two homogenous reservoirs…” conclude the authors. “The observations and analysis presented in this work reveal a complex release including multiple oil groups, a sedimentary repository, and no definitive evidence of hydrocarbon discharge directly from a reservoir.”
The authors also warn of the risk should the government order further well interventions or other decommissioning activity without the benefit of fully understanding the complexity of the incident site.
“A major hurdle for any path forward is managing the liability associated with a failed outcome that results in the release of more oil, damage to property, or worse, causes harm to responders. These are genuine concerns given the challenging and complex environment at MC-20.”
The Coast Guard’s reliance on several recent and discredited studies claiming high volumes of oil are being released from actively flowing wells is a reversal of the established scientific consensus and more than a decade’s worth of verifiable science. Those non-peer reviewed studies led the Coast Guard to issue an administrative order to install a containment system at the MC-20 site. The Coast Guard claims that the containment system, activated in 2019, has been capturing approximately 1,000 gallons (23 barrels) of oil per day. However, the Coast Guard has so far refused to share any data with Taylor Energy or the public to validate that claim. (The question of peer-reviewed science vs. studies which have not been peer-reviewed is significant because the federal agencies’ own policies require its science to be peer-reviewed as a condition of relying on it for policy decisions.)
“Given the challenging scientific and technical nature of this problem and the stalled progress, we call on the responsible federal agencies to capitalize on the respite and opportunity afforded by active containment and initiate a fast-track study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to develop response options,” the authors write.
Perspective from Taylor Energy
“This is an enormously important study,” said Will Pecue, president of Taylor Energy. “Unlike the prior reports promoted by the government in response to litigation, this is a peer-reviewed examination of the complete historic data record that directly contradicts the flawed theories that actively flowing wells are the source of the sheen at the MC-20 site.
“Reaching a consensus understanding of the source of the sheen is absolutely necessary before any decisions can be made in regard to further action at the MC-20 site. Everyone, including Taylor Energy, wants to see a reduction or elimination of the surface sheen.
“Unfortunately, the government’s scientists have oversimplified this complex matter, purposely ignored key data, withheld acquired data and physical samples, and operated in secrecy. This type of behavior is detrimental to determining a responsible path forward for the benefit of the environment and all stakeholders.
“Were the Coast Guard or the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to order intervention actions on any one of the MC-20 wells, the consequence could result in a continual release of oil from the same well or wells that are incapable of flowing in their current state. At present these wells are plugged or sealed or have insufficient reservoir pressure for flow and pose no environmental threat. But initiating intervention operations on any one of them could create a very serious and uncontrolled flow of oil into the ecosystem, creating an environmental concern that does not presently exist.
“Taylor Energy remains committed to working with the government to definitively resolve these important questions, relying on sound and verifiable science. For this reason, Taylor Energy endorses the recommendations by the authors to invite the National Academies to examine all the science and to develop a recommendation on a proper response. Taylor Energy calls on BSEE and the Coast Guard to put this in motion and is prepared to fully support this important initiative.”
About the Study
Over the course of this time, there have been more than 3,000 overflights by seaplanes tracking evidence of a sheen of oil on the surface of the water, more than 100 surveys of the seafloor by Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and multiple acoustic, geothermal, and chemical surveys, making the MC-20 site one of the most studied oil spill sites in U.S. history. Most of the data the scientists relied upon were developed under the auspices of the Coast Guard-led Unified Command. Funding for the study was provided by Taylor Energy, the federally-designated “Responsible Party” in the response effort.
Recently, the Coast Guard, which has response authority over the incident, has used wildly-inflated estimates for the amount of oil emanating from the MC-20 location and baseless conclusions to assert that the continued sheen is from actively flowing wells associated with oil reservoirs under the seafloor. The Coast Guard relied on those now-discredited estimates to partially federalize the response effort in 2018 and order the installation of a containment system at the MC-20 site.
The authors of the study examined these theories.
As part of their analysis, the authors looked at signs of evidence that the sheen was coming from one or more actively flowing wells: the chemical composition of the oil, as well as the temperature and salinity of the water at the seafloor.
For example, if the sheen was coming from an actively flowing well, it would be homogeneous (consistent) in its chemical composition. However, sheen samples captured on the water’s surface shows it to be heterogeneous, indicating individually unique sources. Each sample had a different chemical composition, meaning it could not have come from a single source.
Also, if the sheen was coming from an actively flowing well, it would be accompanied by superheated high salinity water that would also come from the same producing reservoir. However, the scientific analysis shows no temperature anomalies at the seafloor that would be evidence of this reservoir water. Nor does the evidence show any differences in the salinity of the water at the ocean bottom that would be present were actively flowing wells discharging oil into the sea.
About Taylor Energy Company and the MC-20 Site
In September 2004, during Hurricane Ivan, large and powerful waves caused a massive seafloor failure in the Gulf of Mexico that toppled Taylor Energy’s MC-20 oil platform and swept it 500 feet downslope of its original location. Since the moment the storm passed, Taylor Energy has met all of its obligations and has been dedicated to an effective and environmentally prudent response. This includes working cooperatively with the Coast Guard, as well as other federal agencies, through a Unified Command structure that was established to direct the response effort.
Taylor Energy successfully drilled intervention wells to plug the wells that were leaking or had a potential to leak. In 2013, 45 people from 21 different federal and state agencies, as well as private sector expertise, participated in an Ecological Risk Assessment, which reached a consensus position and concluded that drilling further intervention wells to plug any of the remaining wells was “not recommended because drilling [such] wells was not expected to provide sufficient ecological benefit to offset the risks and impacts associated with the drilling and plugging operations.”
There has been no credible, peer-reviewed and verifiable evidence that would repeal the consensus view that further well intervention poses a much greater risk to the environment, outweighing the potential benefit.
Additional information is available at https://mc20response.com.