Oil Companies – Not Louisiana Citizens – Must Pay for Hurricane Ida-Related Spill Cleanup

New York Times article published September 26, 2021 Photo credit: Danae Columbus

Ret. Lieutenant General Russell Honore issued a scathing rebuke to Louisiana’s oil and gas industry on Tuesday for its greed and gross negligence. In the typical style for which Honore has become recognized as one of America’s leading environmental advocates, he demanded that the oil corporations – not taxpayers – foot the bill to remediate the dangerous and potentially deadly pollution caused from 2,000 plus spills during Hurricane Ida.  

“Let me give it to you straight: these greedy, out-of-state CEOs don’t care about Louisiana’s families. If they did they would have cleaned up their dangerous toxic oil wells. But they didn’t. They left them abandoned across Louisiana, where they can cause maximum harm to our kids, our families, our businesses and our drinking water. I’ve got one thing to say – if they think we’re going to take that lying down, they have another thing coming,” said Honore. He made his impassioned remarks outside the Petroleum Club in Lafayette.  

Honore estimates that clean-up costs could reach at least $500 million. More than 600 dangerous chemical sites and oil wells were in Hurricane Ida’s path when she roared across the Gulf of Mexico. The oil industry is famous for failing to plug orphan wells – which Honore believes number 4,600. In addition, the industry uses legal loopholes to avoid capping thousands more deserted wells. The New York Times reports that federal data estimates 47 percent of pipeline segments and 75 percent of platforms in the Gulf of Mexico are inactive or abandoned.

“We need a solution to pollution. The oil industry wants Louisiana taxpayers to foot their $500 million dollar bill. They must think we were born yesterday,” Honore said. He vehemently called out oil industry CEO’s as out-of-touch and out-of-state interlopers who are “sorely mistaken” if they think they can take advantage of Louisiana residents.

The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources estimates it will cost $128 million and take 20 years to plug abandoned wells. That price tag does not include the costs of cleaning up the contaminated sites. Honore claims the state’s oil and gas regulations continue to encourage operators to walk away from the wells.

Pollutions caused by the oil and gas industry will continue to produce the kind of extreme weather patterns that led to Hurricane Ida, Honore explained. Since Hurricane Ida struck, the U.S. Coast Guard reported 2,000 new pollution spills in the region and none were thought to be caused by active sites, i.e. they were all caused by inactive infrastructure including abandoned wells. 

“We need to prepare for extreme weather events and we also have to recover from them. Ida’s direct path went over some 600 facilities that stored or contained oil,” he said. Honore noted the spill near Port Fourchon was 11 miles long and visible from space. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) started using satellites to track spills and leaks a decade ago, according to the Times. In the two weeks after Ida, NOAA issued a total of 55 spill reports, including a spill near Timbalier Island National Wildlife Refuge, a fragile nature preserve, which underscored the fragility of the region’s offshore oil and gas infrastructure to intensifying storms fueled by climate change. NOAA official Ellen Ramirez told the Times that Ida has had the most significant impact to offshore drilling since satellite detection of marine pollution, including oil spills began. “It’s unprecedented,” Ramirez said.  

NOAA usually spots on average 25 spills per month in the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico. The series of spills after Hurricane Katrina released approximately 10 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, equal to the 1989 Exxon Valdez. The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill released more than 120 million gallons. NOAA’s technology was not yet in use when either of those disasters occurred. NOAA says their satellite technology still has some limitations. 

It was Hurricane Ida’s intensity and path and led to the storm having such a devastating impact in Louisiana. Because the storm made landfall near Port Fourchon, which is the service hub for the oil and gas industry, massive failures of older oil platforms and other fixed structures were probably unavoidable. The federal government’s offshore oil and gas industry regulator, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, believes that workers have still not returned to all of the platforms.  

In the days after oil slicks brought on by Hurricane Ida were steaming across the Gulf, the Biden administration began to move forward with restarting its leasing program for onshore and offshore oil and gas development. A sale for offshore leases is scheduled to be held on November 17, 2021. The sale will be live streamed from New Orleans, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Walk-in bids will not be accepted, only bids delivered by mail. 

President Biden issued an executive order which put a pause on new oil and gas leases early in his administration. U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty struck it down after litigation filed by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and 12 other attorney generals including from the state of Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.  

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management predicts that up to 1.12 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be produced through the new leases. According to U.S. News, the sale will cover roughly 136,000 square miles located from 3 miles to 231 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico with water depths ranging from 9 feet to more than 11,115 feet. 

A global emergency preparedness expert and decorated 37-year Army veteran, Honore previously served as Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, coordinating military relief efforts in the wake of the deadly 2005 storm. He more recently led the task force to review U.S. Capitol security in the wake of the January, 6, 2021 attack. Honore has a long history of providing support after environmental disasters, including in Louisiana. 

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