Pointe a Pierre MP David Lee was sharp in his condemnation of the management of a leaking oil well in the Gulf of Paria in Parliament last week. According to Lee, the ruptured well was flooding the gulf with hydrocarbons just 4.5 miles from the Orange Field fishing village, the spill is still out of control more than a week after it was found.
Oil exploration in Trinidad is more than 150 years old, and there are hundreds of drill sites abandoned in circumstances that speak poorly of the long term environmental planning of the Energy Ministry.
Conservationist Marc de Verteuil identified the leaking well as Couva Marine 2, discovered in 1963, developed by Dominion Oil of Canada and abandoned in 1976. De Verteuil believes that the well was never properly abandoned and that the underwater superstructure has corroded. He described the land drill sites and the hidden subsea oil apparatus as “an environmental time bomb waiting to go off.”
An Energy Ministry paper on well abandonment was published in February 1999, spelling out best practices and expectations for closing non-productive wells. Key to the procedure is creation of a cement plug, poured 30 and 45 metres into the hole, as well as a record of pressures associated with the drill site.
Even when professionally done, there are no guarantees even when these procedures are followed properly. Wells are closed when the cost of accessing the hydrocarbon asset is greater than the reward of taking it out of the ground. When that happens, a robust regulatory system capable of monitoring what happens to the well head and a skilled inspectorate to supervise closures are necessary to ensure that oil and gas companies, including state enterprises, don’t cut their losses by inadequately managing the closure of the assets entrusted to them.
In September 2017, then Petrotrin President Fitzroy Harewood admitted that “there have been instances in the past where energy operators have worked at cross-purposes with nature with an unfortunate impact.”
No concerted effort to map and properly identify the status of the deteriorating assets left behind after local well heads were shut down has been announced. This is a costly oversight.
In May 2018, a leaking sub-sea well in the Soldado Northfields that started only dripping oil, as verified by the EMA, was set to cost Petrotrin $10 million to properly seal. The spill at Couva is considerably more vigorous.
This is a clear signal to the Energy Ministry of the need to step up its plans to manage the rotting assets of our oil exploration history and ensure that the work that built this country doesn’t become an expensive legacy of environmental destruction.