Dos and Don’ts for Decommissioning

How to responsibly shut down oil and gas operations

Climate change is the single biggest challenge the ocean faces. We can’t have a healthy future for our ocean—and for our planet—unless we reduce greenhouse gases and combat this ever-growing threat. It’s important to transition away from the production and use of fossil fuels. But, as that happens and offshore oil and gas operations close up shop, how do we make sure it is done in a way that ensures the mess is cleaned up properly?

Decommissioning, or closing down a previously operational oil or gas facility, is a must if we are going to successfully move away from fossil fuels. By law, oil and gas companies are required to clean up after themselves after production ceases. But all too often, they find ways to evade that responsibility. This egregious conduct leaves towns, taxpayers and the ocean environment to foot the bill (sometimes literally) to clean up the giant messes they leave behind. 

Let’s explore how companies (and the government) can decommission oil and gas operations in a clean and responsible way. Here is Ocean Conservancy’s list of Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to decommissioning.


Ensure that offshore oil and gas lease holders have the means to pay for the full cost of decommissioning their oil and gas equipment, including properly plugging their wells and removing platforms and pipelines from the ocean. Decommissioning is expensive. Some studies estimate it will cost more than $40 billion dollars just to plug the existing offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico. When calculating how much it will cost for companies to properly decommission their offshore oil and gas operations, regulators should use realistic cost estimates that cover all decommissioning costs. This means decommissioning cost estimates should include not only plugging wells in the seafloor but also fully removing all other infrastructure from the water—including pipelines.


Don’t allow offshore oil and gas lease holders to transfer or sell declining oil and gas operations to companies that lack the resources to properly decommission those operations. Recently, a major offshore oil and gas operator in the Gulf of Mexico—Cox Operating, LLC—filed for bankruptcy. Media reports indicate Cox used debt to acquire hundreds of aging shallow-water wells. In the wake of the Cox bankruptcy, it is not clear who will bear the costs of plugging those wells and decommissioning the associated structures and pipelines. In the worst-case scenario, bankruptcies can lead to so-called “orphaned wells” which leave taxpayers responsible for the costs of decommissioning. 


Require oil and gas leaseholders to plug offshore wells in a timely fashion and follow best practices. Tens of thousands of offshore wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico. One recent study found that roughly 14,000 of those wells remain unplugged. Disused offshore wells can leak hydrocarbons including methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

DO ✅ 

Require ongoing monitoring of plugged wells so that operators can identify and remedy leaks in a timely fashion. Even when operators follow best practices to properly “plug and abandon” offshore wells, there is no guarantee that the plugging operation will stand the test of time. Cement can crack or fail, leading to leaks. Regulators should require operators to develop and adhere to a program on ongoing monitoring to ensure old offshore oil wells don’t develop leaks that become chronic sources of pollution.  


Don’t continue to allow oil and gas companies to leave disused oil pipeline on the ocean floor.  One government study found that there are more than 18,000 miles of old oil and gas pipeline strewn on the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. That’s enough pipeline to go from Miami to New York—fourteen times. What’s more, big storms are powerful enough to move unused pipeline around on the seafloor. In one instance, a pipeline segment moved roughly 4,000 feet—about three-fourths of a mile—after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf. When pipelines move like that, they can be damaged, which can lead to oil or gas leaks. 


Require lease holders to properly remove oil and gas platforms from offshore waters. More than 7000 oil and gas platforms have been built in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico—and about 1700 of them are still in existence. Shallow-water platforms account for the vast majority of platforms that have been decommissioned to date. As we shift away from offshore oil and gas toward renewable energy sources, operators will have to remove oil and gas platforms located in deeper water—sometimes more than 5,000 feet deep. 

DON’T ❌ 

Don’t allow operators with a poor track record on safety or compliance to acquire or operate offshore oil and gas operations. Regulators should weed out offshore operators with poor track records. In some cases, high levels of noncompliance could be a warning sign. For instance, one Gulf of Mexico operator had a violation rate that was 4 to 25 times higher than the best companies. That operator declared bankruptcy in 2014, and now taxpayers are paying to plug the wells it drilled.


Develop and implement a “Fitness to Operate” standard. In November 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior proposed developing a “Fitness to Operate” standard that set out minimal minimum standards to ensure companies meet safety, environmental and financial responsibilities. The United States Department of the Interior has not yet developed such a standard.


Be a part of the solution. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management published a proposed rule that, if adopted, would help ensure that the oil companies pay for the costs associated with facility decommissioning.

Will you join with Ocean Conservancy in making sure the government holds oil and gas operators accountable for cleaning up the messes that they make? Take action today!

Our work is focused on solving some of the greatest threats facing our ocean today. We bring people, science and policy together to champion innovative solutions and fight for a sustainable ocean.
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