NEW ORLEANS — As work crews arrived at the site of Taylor Energy’s 15-year-old oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, a federal judge in New Orleans repeatedly asked lawyers for both Taylor and the U.S. Coast Guard why it’s taken so long to act.
Judge Ivan Lemelle listened to oral arguments Wednesday as Taylor tried to block a Coast Guard contractor from “trespassing” on its property to contain oil that’s been leaking 10 miles off the tip of Louisiana since September 2004.
That’s when Hurricane Ivan caused a sub-sea mudslide that toppled a Taylor production platform. Some of the 25 oil and gas wells that were connected to the platform started leaking. Taylor has never been cited for negligence or fined for the pollution because the company claims it was caused by “an act of God.”
But the judge wasn’t worried about assigning blame. He wanted to know why Taylor would try to block the latest efforts to contain the leak.
“Nobody’s saying you caused this incident,” Lemelle said to Taylor’s attorney, Carl Rosenblum. “They’re saying it’s time for another set of eyes to look at the problem. Look, you tried. But it’s still going on after all this time. Let’s get someone else to take a look at this.”
Taylor says it’s willing to let others try, but it doesn’t believe the government’s new containment plans are going to work and worries they could actually cause a worse environmental disaster.
The company says it’s spent more than $500 million trying to stop or contain the spill, but nothing has worked, including the same kind of oil-collection equipment now being used by the Coast Guard’s Belle Chasse-based contractor, Couvillion Group.
Taylor sued Couvillion and the Coast Guard in December to block them from the operation that’s already underway: Dropping a containment dome – a large metal box designed to corral the oil and funnel it to collection tanks on the surface – into 450 feet of water and hooking it to the platform support structure, or jacket, which is still lying on the seafloor.
Couvillion plans to hook the dome to the downed platform jacket so it won’t sit directly on the bottom and sink into the oatmeal-like sediments. The previous containment dome operations failed when the devices sunk and got clogged.
Rosenblum argued that a decade of careful review, in coordination with government agencies, has already concluded the best course of action would be to “leave well enough alone.” He cited a 2013 report, which was endorsed by the Coast Guard, to argue that a containment dome could disturb loose sediments that have kept most of the oil buried.
But the Coast Guard’s position has completely changed since September, when a government-commissioned scientific survey estimated the oil could be leaking at a rate 1,000 times larger than what Taylor had been reporting. In October, Coast Guard Capt. Kristi Luttrell ordered Taylor to hire Couvillion to deploy its containment domes. When Taylor balked and tried to negotiate with Couvillion, Luttrell seized control and hired Couvillion directly, at Taylor’s expense.
Lemelle also expressed concerns about how the government has handled the situation.
“This occurred in 2004. How long does it take for the government to decide what to do?” the judge asked Erica Zilioli, a Justice Department attorney representing the Coast Guard. She said the government’s change in posture was based on new scientific data showing there could be three active leaks and a lot more oil escaping into the environment.
But Rosenblum told Lemelle the real reason the government changed its tune was a Washington Post story in October, which raised questions about President Donald Trump’s plans to expand drilling into the Atlantic Ocean while the government struggled to stop a leak that had been going for more than 14 years and could add up to more oil spilled than the BP disaster.
One report cited by the government estimates the rate of the spill at 10,000 to 30,000 gallons of oil leaking into the Gulf every day, a far cry from the 10-gallon-a-day rate offered by Taylor’s hired scientists and previously accepted by the Coast Guard.
Other, independent experts have come up with more moderate estimates of how much oil is leaking. Ian MacDonald, an oceanography professor at Florida State University, was instrumental in correcting BP's vast under-reporting of the size of its massive oil spill in 2010 and has consistently found oil companies understating the size of their spills. He estimates the Taylor spill rate is about 4,200 gallons a day.
Rosenblum urged the judge to take swift action Wednesday, showing him photos and data indicating that three work boats are already at the leak site to deploy the containment dome. But Lemelle didn’t appear to be in a hurry to stop the operations, giving the attorneys another week to file more briefs.
Zilioli, the government lawyer, offered a new argument against Taylor’s claims of trespassing, claiming Taylor abandoned its platform and no longer owns the jacket structure that’s lying on the seafloor. She also argued the oil company’s minerals lease at Mississippi Canyon Block 20 (MC20) expired in 2006, and therefore Taylor has no more property claims at the leak site.
Zilioli also argued that Taylor mischaracterized the findings of a 2013 assessment of the ecological impact of spill-response operations. That report, a consensus of experts representing both Taylor and the government, specifically warned against dredging contaminated sediments or drilling additional wells into the seafloor to plug existing wells, arguing those actions could cause more environmental harm than good.
Rosenblum cited that report in court as evidence the new containment dome operation is too dangerous. But Zilioli said the 2013 consensus report doesn’t say anything about deploying more containment domes.