Chair Grijalva, Rep. Lowenthal Release GAO Report Showing Offshore Pipeline Oversight Failures; New Bill From Rep. Brownley Addresses Findings

April 20, 2021
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Alan S. Lowenthal (D-Calif.), Chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, today released a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) does not provide adequate oversight of thousands of miles of active offshore oil and gas pipelines and that BSEE does not have a robust process to ensure obsolete pipelines left on the seafloor follow federal safety and environmental standards.

The report, Offshore Oil and Gas: Updated Regulations Needed to Improve Pipeline Oversight and Decommissioning, available at https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-21-293, finds that 18,000 miles of pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico –– more than 97 percent of the total in the region –– have been “decommissioned in place” since the 1960s, meaning fossil fuel drillers left them on the seafloor without any plan to subsequently remediate or remove them.

The GAO report finds that while this has become BSEE’s standard practice, the agency does not thoroughly assess the impacts of leaving these pipelines on the seafloor, leaving large data gaps on such crucial issues as harmful environmental effects, navigational and fishing hazards, and interference with other uses of the seabed. 

Offshore pipelines pose safety and environmental risks due to the possibility of leakage of oil, gas, and other toxic chemicals that can harm marine species, birds, and wildlife. Pipelines can also shift location, creating hazards for commercial fishing and navigation while disturbing fish habitat and historical artifacts. 

GAO found that BSEE does not ensure pipeline operators meet decommissioning standards, such as cleaning and burying pipelines, because the agency never observes pipeline decommissioning activities or verifies industry documentation. GAO found that BSEE doesn’t monitor the condition or location of pipelines once it gives approval for them to be left on the seafloor.

To address many of the issues identified in the report, Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) today is introducing the Offshore Pipeline Safety Act of 2021. The bill is cosponsored by Chair Grijalva and Subcommittee Chair Lowenthal and is endorsed by Oceana, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), League of Conservation Voters, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Healthy Gulf, and Ocean Conservancy.

Among other things, the bill requires:

  • BSEE to issue regulations improving the oversight of offshore pipelines, including mandating frequent inspections and requiring pipelines to be equipped with a leak detection system;
  • BSEE and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to conduct a study evaluating the environmental risks associated with decommissioning oil and gas pipelines in place compared to removing pipelines;
  • BSEE to continually monitor the condition and location of all oil and gas pipelines that have been decommissioned in place;
  • BSEE to charge owners of offshore pipelines an annual fee to fund pipeline removal if an owner files for bankruptcy;
  • BSEE to complete a study addressing the risks to the environment of chemicals used in oil and gas operations. 

“The business model of drilling our oceans for a quick buck and sticking the public with the cleanup bill is coming to an end,” Chair Grijalva said today. “Our oceans are there for all of us, not just oil and gas companies, and if they can’t behave responsibly on their own, this Congress will be happy to step in and set some overdue boundaries. I wholeheartedly support Rep. Brownley’s bill, I thank GAO for their thorough and professional work on this issue, and I look forward to addressing this at the Committee level in a timely way.”

“Representative Brownley’s Offshore Pipeline Safety Act is critically important to protecting our environment and communities from the risks associated with leaks from, not just aging, but all offshore oil and gas pipelines,” Rep. Lowenthal said. “To ensure protections, there must be consistent inspection and monitoring of this infrastructure and study the safety and environmental risks associated decommissioning these pipelines – and that is exactly what this bill does. For too long we have gone without a proper rule governing these pipelines. That should end now.”

“Across our nation’s coastlines, thousands of miles of decommissioned oil and gas pipelines have been left to decay on the seafloor, posing risks to our marine ecosystems and our fisheries,” Rep. Brownley said. “We must do more to ensure that decommissioned pipelines are cleaned up properly. We must also ensure that active wells are properly monitored, including requiring advanced leak detection systems to prevent disasters from occurring. Along California’s Central Coast, we have seen terrible tragedies that resulted from lax oversight, including the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The scars of this catastrophic event are still visible and continue to have a resounding impact on our region’s environment. My bill takes proactive measures to ensure that our coastlines are protected from these known hazards.”

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