BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A 13-year-old oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico remains a "long-term problem" without a clear solution for eliminating chronic slicks that often stretch for miles off Louisiana's coast, a government lawyer recently told a federal judge.
Up to 16 oil wells are possibly leaking at the site where a company's platform toppled during Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Justice Department attorney John Roberson said during a court proceeding in Washington last Friday. Roberson said federal regulators haven't decided whether to require Taylor Energy Co. to plug any of those wells, according to a court transcript.
A company lawyer insisted there is no evidence any wells are still leaking. Experts have determined that drilling underwater to plug those wells could do more ecological harm than good, another company lawyer told U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Nancy Firestone.
New Orleans-based Taylor Energy sued the government in January 2016 to recover millions of dollars it set aside for work to end the leak. The suit claims regulators violated a 2008 agreement requiring the company to deposit approximately $666 million in a trust to pay for leak response work. The company argued the government must return the remaining $432 million.
Yearlong settlement talks have failed to resolve the case. Taylor Energy attorney Carl Rosenblum said the company wants to move forward with the lawsuit.
Roberson said the Coast Guard and Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement are weighing the "next steps," with options that include drilling to plug wells and a new containment system for capturing oil before it reaches the surface.
"But I can't represent to you that a particular step is envisioned at this point in time," Roberson said. "What I can represent is that the focus is on the environment and this ongoing leak."
The judge asked him if the company is still involved in the decision-making process.
"I don't think that's where we're at," Roberson said. "I'll let Taylor address it, but I believe that their position is there's no more that can be done and they should be able to walk away from the issue."
Rosenblum said the company isn't trying to "get off the hook," but Taylor Energy has claimed nothing can be done to completely eliminate chronic sheens at the site.
Regulators, however, have warned that the leak could last a century or more if left unchecked.
Waves whipped up by Ivan triggered an underwater mudslide that buried a cluster of oil wells under treacherous mounds of sediment. In 2011, the company finished drilling a series of "intervention wells" to plug nine of the wells.
"Remember, judge, this event was not Taylor's fault," Rosenblum said. "This was Mother Nature doing what she did."
Roberson said there are "fundamental disagreements" between the company and the government about the amount of oil leaking from the site.
A 2015 investigation by The Associated Press revealed evidence that the leak is worse than the company, or government, have publicly reported during their secretive response. Presented with AP's findings that year, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that was about 20 times larger than one cited by the company in a 2014 court filing.
Using Coast Guard pollution reports, West Virginia-based watchdog group SkyTruth estimated in December that between roughly 855,000 gallons (3.2 million liters) and nearly 4 million gallons (15.1 million liters) of oil spilled from the site between 2004 and 2017.