As 2018 drew to a close, and during the federal government shutdown, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) issued a quiet but important request for information (RFI) seeking input on the technical, safety and environmental and other factors that should inform BSEE’s decisions to allow decommissioning-in-place of pipeline-related infrastructure in deepwater on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) (83 Fed. Reg. 67343 (Dec. 28, 2018)). This RFI presents an opportunity for companies with potentially affected assets and other interested parties to better inform the government’s approach and increase the predictability of BSEE’s decision-making. Deepwater—meaning depths of at least 600 feet—oil and gas developments have extensive networks of pipeline and pipeline-related infrastructure, such as pipeline valves, fittings, umbilicals, subsea production manifolds, pipeline end terminations (PLETs), pipeline end manifolds (PLEMs), subsea umbilical termination assemblies, pumps and risers. As the infrastructure ages and reaches the end of its operational life, decommissioning strategies must be developed, but the uncertainty around the availability of decommissioning-in-place options for these items undermines predictability and costing. Moreover, given the location of such infrastructure and the ecosystem services that such infrastructure may be providing in situ, complete removal is not always the most resource-effective or environmentally beneficial option. However, the framework and criteria by which asset holders and BSEE could holistically compare the various removal and decommissioning-in-place options that may be viable is not yet fully developed.
Under current regulations, the default is complete removal: BSEE requires that an operator decommission and remove pipelines, wells, platforms, and other facilities that are no longer useful for operations. (30 C.F.R. § 250.1703(g)). Further, all obstructions must be cleared from the seafloor that would hinder other uses of the OCS. (Id.). However, the regulations do provide that pipelines may be decommissioned-in-place if, upon application, the BSEE Regional Supervisor determines that leaving the pipeline in place would not constitute a hazard to navigation or fishing operations, unduly interfere with use of the OCS, or have adverse environmental impacts. (Id. §§ 250.1750, 250.1751). Though BSEE has broad authority to depart from the operating requirements of its regulations under certain circumstances (id. § 250.142), including to allow for decommissioning-in-place of additional infrastructure relating to pipelines, existing regulations do not specifically address decommissioning-in-place of infrastructure such as valves, fittings, umbilicals, PLETs, and PLEMs.
Though BSEE’s RFI is express that the agency does not expect to change its policy of removal as the default, it notes that several applications to decommission-in-place pipeline-related infrastructure are already pending and that these applications make the case that removal is either unnecessary or less safe than decommissioning-in-place. Further, the RFI recognizes that justifications for approvals might vary by water depth, and that there are many variables and site-specific factors that can affect the propriety of a decommissioning-in-place for a given asset.
Through this information-gathering process, the agency plainly hopes to establish a better defined and more consistent approach to processing requests to allow decommissioning-in-place of pipeline-related infrastructure on the OCS. From the perspective of interested parties, this RFI is an opportunity to advance a decision-making framework that facilitates holistic decision-making through a disciplined comparative assessment of removal versus decommissioning-in-place (whole or parts) based on several factors: environmental impact, ecosystem services that may be provided by the asset in situ, safety considerations, impacts on navigation and other uses, cost, and feasibility. Such an approach would improve both the predictability and the rigor of these decisions.
Written comments must be submitted by February 26, 2019.