The treasures of the Gulf and the Sierra Madre

An AP report by Jeff Donn and Mitch Weiss (which can be read in today’s Chicago Tribune) reveals the surprising fact that 27,000 oil and gas wells in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico are abandoned and, perhaps less surprisingly given how government and BP have performed this year, “[n]o one — not industry, not government — is checking to see if they are leaking …” Some of these wells were abandoned over 60 years ago, and the authors raise the concern whether the sealing off of those wells are now deteriorating or failing. There is particular concern over 3,500 “temporarily abandoned” well, which are simply neglected wells. Since the regulations for sealing “temporarily abandoned” wells are less stringent than for permanent ones, the industry — and government — has allowed wells to remain in this category even though they were abandoned in the 1950s and 60s.

The authors explain the geological reasons how wells can be “repressured” with oil and detail the numerous ways that the seals can be damaged or eroded over time. In fact, they note, “the well beneath BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig was being sealed with cement for temporary abandonment when it blew April 20 …”

Neither government nor industry inspect any of the seals once the wells are abandoned. Industry spokesmen assure the authors, however, that there is nothing to worry about because “a correctly plugged offshore well will last virtually forever.”

As has become a common way of doing business in the Bush-Obama administration, officials in the Interior Department failed to respond to “repeated questions regarding why there are no inspections of abandoned wells.” Perhaps these people, who appeared so confident in the safety of off-shore drilling the week before April 20 (so much so that they urged the abandonment of the prohibition put in place by George H.W. Bush), simply see no reason to comment since the oil industry has already spoken on their safety and they don’t view their job as in any way to contradict the oil industry.

The point of view of the oil oligarchs was long ago captured by the mysterious anarchist writer B. Traven in his best-selling analysis of greed, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927 (in German); NY: Knopf: 1935 (in English)). In the first part of their trip (before they land on the idea of prospecting), Dobbs and Moulton arrive at a Mexican town dominated by American oil interests; they are looking for a temporary job there. (For those whose frame of reference is John Huston’s 1948 movie, Dobbs is the character played by Humphrey Bogart; Moulton is not in the movie — the story Dobbs and Moulton looking for jobs in the oil camps takes place before Dobbs meets Curtin, in the movie played by Tim Holt.) The dozen different oil companies at work in the squalid town are pumping, refining and shipping out oil. The town is redolent of greed, the kind that doesn’t care about what it destroys, whether environment or human: “The air bit into your lungs because it was filled with poisonous gas escaping from the refineries. That sting in the air which made breathing so hard and unpleasant and choked your throat constantly meant that people were making money–much money.” (p.28; I’m quoting here from the Time Reading Program edition c1963.)

The section that is called to mind, however, is when they set off for Villa Cuauhtemoc:

“They went up the river on the right shore. The whole road, an ugly dirt road at that, was covered with crude oil. It seemed to break through cracks and holes in the ground. There were even pools and ponds of oil. It came mostly through leaks in the pipes and from overflowing tanks which were lined up on the hills along the shore. Brooks of crude oil ran down like water into the river. Nobody seemed to care about the loss of these thousands and thousands of barrels of oil, which soaked the soil and polluted the river. So rich in oil was this part of the world then that the company managers and directors seemed not to mind when a well which brought in twenty thousand barrels a day caught fire and burned down to its last drop. Who would care about three or four hundred thousand barrels of oil running away every week and being lost owing to busted pipe lines, to filling tanks carelessly, or to not notifying the pumpman that while he has been pumping for days, sections of the pipe lines have been taken out, to be replaced by new ones. The more oil is lost, the higher the price. Three cheers, then, for broken pipes and drunken pumpmen and tank-attendants!” (pp30-31.)

But of course it would be conspiracy-minded to suggest greed and corruption were at the bottom of the industry’s neglect and Interior Department’s refusal to answer. That’s the stuff of loony novelists.

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