How bankruptcy lets oil and gas companies evade cleanup rules.
A battle over who is responsible for cleaning up hundreds of oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico is quietly playing out in a bankruptcy court in southern Texas. The contestants in this game of fossil fuel infrastructure hot potato: Fieldwood Energy, an offshore drilling company attempting to offload more than $7 billion in environmental cleanup responsibilities; a group of oil majors including Chevron, Marathon Oil, and BP; and the Department of the Interior.*
Fieldwood has declared bankruptcy, and a court is considering the company’s plan to split its assets, moving older legacy wells and drilling rigs that are expensive to clean up into two entities while creating a new company — appropriately named NewCo — to purchase the more profitable assets. The company proposes outright abandoning a fourth bucket of assets consisting of more than 1,170 wells, 280 pipelines, and 270 drilling platforms. Aging wells and drilling platforms pose multiple risks to the environment and human safety, including oil and gas leaks and explosions.
A quirk in the regulations that govern offshore drilling allows the Interior Department to hold companies that previously operated on Fieldwood leases accountable for the cleanup. The department is charged with protecting public lands — both on land and offshore — and issues leases to more than 12 million acres of seabed, including in the Gulf. A single lease can contain multiple wells, and many of the leases that Fieldwood is proposing to abandon or “return” to predecessor companies could end up the responsibility of oil majors, such as Chevron and BP. Unsurprisingly, both companies have zealously objected to the company’s bankruptcy plan.
While the oil companies attempt to dodge responsibility for cleanup, the Interior Department, has been filing objections to Fieldwood’s plan to transfer leases to other companies and abandon wells, stating that its environmental obligations are “nondischargeable” and that leases cannot be sold or transferred without sign-off from the federal government.
Fieldwood is one of more than 260 oil and gas companies that has filed for bankruptcy in the last six years. With low prices and suppressed demand for oil and gas over the last year, operators have struggled to stay afloat. Many have been turning to bankruptcy in an attempt to shed their debts, reorganize their assets, and, in some cases, offload their environmental obligations. Utilizing limitations and loopholes in bankruptcy law, these companies are employing a playbook perfected by coal companies to shed their environmental and labor liabilities.
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