BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A decade-old oil leak that could last for another century was caused by an “act of God” during a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, the president of the company responsible said Wednesday.
Taylor Energy President William Pecue told a gathering of industry experts and environmental advocates in Baton Rouge that the company cares “very deeply” about the environment.
“This event hits home for us,” said Pecue, the last remaining full-time employee at the New Orleans-based company. “This is our community. We live here and it is very special to us.”
The public meeting at an LSU research center is a requirement of a court settlement that Taylor Energy reached in September with environmental groups, which accused the company of withholding information about the leak.
In September 2004, waves whipped up by Hurricane Ivan triggered an underwater mudslide, which toppled a Taylor Energy-owned platform and buried a cluster of its oil wells under mounds of sediment.
Federal regulators believe oil is still coming out at the site. Oil slicks often stretch for miles about 10 miles off Louisiana’s coast.
Taylor Energy has said nothing can be done to completely eliminate the chronic sheens. Regulators recently estimated the leak could last a century or more if left unchecked.
An Associated Press investigation last year revealed evidence that the leak is worse than the company, or government, publicly reported during their secretive response. Presented with AP’s findings, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that’s about 20 times larger than one cited by the company in a court filing last year.
Pecue and company-hired experts were scheduled to make most of the presentations Wednesday during the daylong meeting, the first public forum Taylor Energy has hosted since the leak started more than 11 years ago.
A moderator warned the audience of several dozen people that video and audio recordings of the meeting were prohibited. The moderator also said speakers would only answer questions put in writing.
One of the first asked Pecue to explain why he believes the leak was an “act of God.” Pecue declined to elaborate, citing “potential future litigation.”
“I can affirmatively say that we do believe this was act of God under the legal definition,” he said.
One of the environmental advocates in the audience was retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is better known for helping restore order in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Honore, who founded a coalition of environmental groups called “GreenARMY,” said he wants to see more transparency from Taylor Energy and the regulators supervising the company’s work on what he called a “man-made disaster.”
“If we didn’t put the (platform) there, this incident wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “I don’t blame God for what happened here.”
Honore asked why the company has downplayed the potential environmental impact. Pecue refused to answer, saying he was only taking written questions from the audience. Pecue told Honore he would have to leave if he persisted in asking his question. Honore left the room after Pecue threated to “shut this down.”
Taylor Energy, once one of the Gulf’s largest operators, sold all its offshore leases and oil and gas interests in 2008. Its founder, Patrick Taylor, died in 2004. The company is led by his widow, Phyllis Taylor, a prominent philanthropist and political donor.
Environmental groups led by the New York City-based Waterkeeper Alliance sued Taylor Energy in 2012, arguing the public was entitled to know more about the company’s government-supervised work.
Taylor Energy says it has spent more than $480 million on its efforts to stop the leak. Earlier this month, the company sued the federal government to recover approximately $432 million that remains frozen in a trust, reserved for leak response work.
Last year, federal authorities rebuffed the company’s settlement overtures and ordered it to perform more work at the leak site.
Written by Michael Kunzelman, Associated Press