By Milagros Salazar
Peru has more than 6,000 abandoned oil wells that continue to pollute their surroundings, with 270 considered to pose a serious hazard. But the government has yet to carry out an inventory in order to identify and subsequently clean up and seal them, despite a law passed in 2007 for this purpose.
These improperly abandoned oil wells represent more than 6,000 environmental liabilities in the hydrocarbons sector, said Jorge Villar, an engineer from Peru’s energy and mines regulator, OSINERGMIN.
OSINERGMIN reached this estimate in December 2010 after visiting most of the abandoned well sites over a two-year period. The wells are mainly located in the northwestern region of Piura and the northern Amazon region of Loreto.
These wells were left behind as environmental liabilities from oil and gas extraction activities carried out between 1863 and 1993, when there were no regulations requiring concession holders to properly clean up and plug wells that were no longer in use.
Of the thousands of improperly abandoned wells, there are 269 that pose a significant danger and should be dealt with as soon as possible, Villar told Tierramérica. Most of these are located on Peru’s northern coast, and around 50 – which have still not been visited – are in the Amazon rainforest.
The state-owned oil company Petroperú has worked on properly shutting down some of these 6,000 wells, including a dangerous group of wells that had been polluting the waters of Lake Titicaca, in southeastern Peru, since 1945.
In May 2008, one of the wells contaminating the lake, in the Ahuallane-Pirín area, was properly plugged and covered and the underground pipes leading from it were sealed as well to prevent leakages, explained Villar.
Nevertheless, Villar added, Petroperú is a long way from concluding all of the work needed. And the majority of these environmental liabilities cannot be properly remedied until the publication of the inventory required under Law 29.134.
Passed in October 2007, Law 29.134 Regulating Environmental Liabilities in the Hydrocarbons Sector calls for an inventory of these sites to be conducted and establishes the steps to be taken by the corresponding private or state concession holders to deal with them.
The law’s regulations were only issued in February 2011. And due to institutional and legal changes, the execution of the inventory has been left hanging as a result of a jurisdictional dispute among different government bodies.
The inventory, to be published by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, would allow for the precise identification of well sites and the parties responsible for them.
“The lack of this inventory places people’s basic rights at risk, because these environmental liabilities can cause serious impacts on human health and the environment,” Alicia Abanto, head of the department for the environment, public services and indigenous peoples at the Ombudsman’s Office of Peru, told Tierramérica.
A number of these open wells continue to release gases and other toxic agents that are not only harmful in themselves, but can also cause explosions, stressed Villar, who has worked in the hydrocarbons field for more than 30 years.
In some parts of Piura, Villa observed that there are communities living very close to dangerous wells, and that they have even adapted the wells to continue extracting oil through artisanal means.
It is estimated that around 20 private companies are responsible for the improper abandonment of these wells, while the government is responsible for a certain share of them, since they correspond to the period when the state was in charge of oil and gas exploitation.
However, the regulations stipulate that in cases when the companies responsible cannot be identified, it is up to the government to remedy the damage.
Law 29.134 established that OSINERGMIN would be responsible for the supervision and control of hydrocarbon operations and the identification of their environmental liabilities until March 2011, when the environment-related functions would be transferred to an environmental regulatory agency created within the Ministry of Environment, the OEFA.
But in official communications consulted by Tierramérica, the OEFA informed the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ombudsman’s Office that “the identification of environmental liabilities of hydrocarbon operations does not fall under its jurisdiction,” but rather that of OSINERGMIN, because cataloguing environmental liabilities “does not classify as an environmental supervision and control activity.”
In response, Villar argued that because OSINERGMIN no longer has the authority to supervise the sector and therefore cannot carry out the necessary field work, it cannot continue conducting the inventory.
“We did it for as long as we had the authority to do so, and we turned all of the files on the identification of the wells over to the Ministry of Energy and Mines,” he said.
At press time, the ministry had still not replied to Tierramérica’s requests for information. But technical sources at the ministry’s Department of Energy-Related Environmental Affairs consider the inventory to be the responsibility of the OEFA.
The technicians at the department believe that the identification of abandoned wells carried out by OSINERGMIN up until December 2010 is not sufficient for the publication of an inventory, since the law stipulates the inclusion of other liabilities resulting from hydrocarbon exploitation, such as contaminated soils, leakages, emissions and waste deposits.
The communications office of the Ministry of Environment tersely informed Tierramérica that it is coordinating a solution to the problem with the Ministry of Energy and Mines and OSINERGMIN.
The same response was received by Abanto of the Ombudsman’s Office, after sending numerous official communications to the institutions involved regarding the non-fulfillment of the state’s obligations.
“There is an error in the interpretation of the law,” said Abanto, “which must be resolved as soon as possible so that the population does not continue to be placed in danger.”