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Treasure to Trash

The Story Behind the Clean-up of Galveston Bay’s Abandoned Oilfields

Sharon from s/v Rose of Sharon by Sharon Kratz s/v Rose of Sharon

“This story has a happy ending,” said Rick Stewart, president of Argonauta Energy Services L.L.C., a company that provides experienced consultants to oil and gas industry companies. But he’s a sailor, too. S/V Moon Eye is his Catalina 380 docked at Kemah’s Waterford Yacht Club. He’s been sailing Galveston Bay and the Gulf Coast of Texas since 2006, and he often saw what you see when you’re out there – derelict, abandoned oilfield structures.

“I’m a lawyer and an oil and gas guy. I knew they weren’t supposed to be there,” he said, “They were eyesores and dangerous as hell.” He asked long-time Galveston Bay boaters about the structures and said the replies were vague.

Oil pipe in Galveston Bay.

“They’ve been here forever,” said one sailor. Stewart began doing some research. He contacted the Galveston Bay Foundation (GBF:, an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting Galveston Bay. They sponsor Bay education and develop projects to enhance marsh habitat and the natural resources of the Bay.

Stewart discovered they’d had a project that started in 2005 to remove derelict vessels. Since that time, over 500 sunken and abandoned boats have been hauled out of the Galveston Bay system. The Dickinson Bay area had many submerged hazards, mostly abandoned shrimp boats, metal boats, barge boats and other floating debris. “The place was a graveyard,” said Stewart. “It was where boats went to die.” GBF received funding from Texas General Land Office’s (GLO) Coastal Impact Assistance Program and later received funding from the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program to develop additional debris removal programs in the Galveston Bay area.

According to GBF, Galveston Bay has had some subsidence (a gradual sinking or “caving-in” of a land area), so in addition to the derelict oil and gas structures we can see, many that were once visible are now under water, an even more hazardous navigation situation. “I see cigarette boats going at top speed. They don’t know what is just under the surface that they could hit,” Stewart noted. The possibility of oil pipelines rusting and leaking is also a threat to Galveston Bay marine resources.

“There was a lot of drilling in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s,” said Stewart. Fifteen to 20 years is a typical life cycle for a Galveston Bay drilling site. “In the typical life cycle of a Galveston Bay well, a big company like Exxon will acquire the right to explore for oil and gas from the Texas General Land Office (GLO).  If a company makes a discovery, they will build a platform to gather and produce the oil and gas.  Several wells may be “tied back” to a single producing platform. The big company will produce the field for several years and eventually sell it to a smaller company that gets as much as possible from late-stage production. That company may re-sell it to an even smaller company that works it until the field is depleted.” The end-user company is supposed to then remove any structures and debris and do a thorough clean-up of the site.

Legally, the company has to clean up a drilling site, but during the ‘60s-‘80s, many companies did not follow through.  The result was those unlit, semi-submerged or submerged structures you see on the Bay now and which boaters and working vessels have to avoid. In the ‘90s, the state government began requiring the operating oil and gas companies to post a bond that would cover the cost of clean-up if the company abandoned the site without following through on their legal obligations. The Texas Railroad Commission requires approved operators to post a bond that covers the cost of the well removal.

“The law says the owners are responsible, but the owners might be out of business when it comes time to remove the structure.” Stewart continued, “And the GLO didn’t have very good records of who owned what back then.”

Stewart further explained the oil and gas process. Typically, oil and gas wells are clustered together and the minerals are routed to one place to process the gathering and transmission system. The Galveston Bay floor is criss-crossed with pipelines leading to and from the mainland for that purpose. The GLO has many active and inactive pipelines that were reported by the operator documented and under current easements. There are no estimates available for the number of abandoned pipelines that were never reported.

In the primary Galveston Bay recreational boating area, Stewart discovered 9 abandoned structures. “We’re talking about an area west of the Houston Ship Channel from the Houston Yacht Club to Kemah Boardwalk to Redfish Island,” said Stewart. “We found the ones you can see just by sailing there.” The hazards are documented on navigational charts, but Stewart noted, “Ninety percent of the recreational boating in Galveston Bay happens right there. Most people don't know how to read charts and boaters with different skill levels are out there.  You hear stories about both inexperienced and experienced boaters running up on those things and damaging their vessels.”

Abandoned Oil Structures in Galveston Bay.

Stewart took it upon himself to document the abandoned structures. He organized the Derelict Structures Project Team (Philip Kropf, Larry & Jimmy Rogers, Walter & Jeanette Bliss and his co-captain, Valerie) and with the support of Lakewood Yacht Club and the Texas Mariners Cruising Association, they photographed and recorded accurate GPS locations for the nine derelicts. Stewart then contacted GBF and GLO. Each structure was given a name. “Smelly Bird is actually what got me started,” Stewart said. “It was a single wellhead sitting out there all by itself, four feet above the surface with no lights. My wife, Valerie, and I sailed by it many times and commented to each other that this was a nasty accident just waiting to happen.” The state’s detailed research revealed the 9 derelict sites had three primary owners that were still registered as active with the Texas Secretary of State. It was important for the state to make every effort to contact those owners by certified mail, email, public notices and telephone. “They had to show due diligence in attempting to notify the companies that the abandoned sites were required to be cleaned up,” said Stewart. “They didn’t want some company coming back and claiming they had wanted to re-entern the well or planned to do the clean-up themselves.” The companies were given plenty of time to respond and only one did. The largest site, “Blue & White,” was removed by its owner, Galveston Bay Energy, LLC. The remaining derelict structure owners either didn’t have the money or the incentive to clean up their abandoned sites. 

“You know, I could have gotten lip service from the GLO because it was such a small project, but that’s not what happened at all,” said Stewart. “They were actually excited about the project; they offered encouragement and support and were responsive from the first phone call.” Stewart contacted area city and boating organizations.  Nassau Bay was the first city council to request additional information and a presentation. It then passed Resolution R2012-1966 where it was resolved that “…the abandoned derelict oil field structures within the area west of the Houston Ship Channel and bounded on the north by Bayport Terminal/Houston Yacht Club, on the west by entrance to Clear Lake, and on the south by Redfish Island pose a threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Nassau Bay. Those derelict structures are dangerous and should be removed in an expeditious manner.”

Seabrook responded two months later with Resolution 2013-02. Kemah’s resolution two weeks later stated, “Whereas Galveston Bay is essential to the economic well being of Kemah . . .  Many in Kemah have located in our community because of its location near the water . . . There are many derelict pier structures in Galveston Bay within the City of Kemah . . . the Council urges the Commissioner of the General Land Office and all other agencies… to remove these derelict structures from Galveston Bay.”

Stewart’s preliminary research gave Texas something with which to build on. The group's work culminated in a meeting with Jerry Patterson, the Texas State Land Commissioner of the GLO and his senior staff in January, 2012. Commissioner Patterson listened to the story, asked questions and told his people to get it done. The state used funds from oil and gas seismic permits and payments/fees to finance the contractors that would handle the debris removal from Galveston Bay.

The removals are done in big pieces. First, the structure’s topsides are removed from the deck, then big cranes remove the heavy concrete deck and finally, the legs or pilings are pulled out completely or cut off well below the mudline. The last step is a side scan sonar and diver inspection to make sure the area is clear above and below the surface. The removal cost varied by location due to the scope of work and complexity of the structure. The total project cost was $1,488,990.00.

Oil platform clean up - before


Oil platform clean up - during

You might ask, “Why should the state pay to clean up oil company junk?”  That is not the plan. The GLO has carefully documented their work. Now that the structures have been removed, the GLO will turn their case files over to the Texas Attorney General. The AG will pursue the deadbeat owners in court to pay for the cost of the clean-up.

The timeframe for concept to completion of the project was almost one year, and Stewart documented each development:

April 2012- initial research, contact with Galveston Bay Foundation, Courtney Smith of GBF directs us to the GLO

May 2012 - first contact with Bill Grimes at GLO, explains law, status of structures

June 2012 - Initial on-the-water survey by local boaters:

Walter & Jeanette Bliss – M/V Mele Kai volunteered boat to take detailed photos and GPS coordinates

Philip Kropf, Texas Mariners Cruising Association, sailor, knows Bay logistics and history

Larry & Jimmy Rogers, Lakewood Yacht Club, sailors, know Bay well, did photography of structures

Rick & Valerie Stewart – S/V Moon Eye, survey coordinators

August 2012 - detailed research and notebook prep, meet with Bob Stokes, Courtney Smith at Galveston Bay Foundation, Breakfast with Steve Lee of TMCA

September 2012 - first meeting with Robert Hatter, GLO manager in charge of leasing state lands for oil and gas including area under Galveston Bay, present notebook with research, photos and info, very positive reception

October 2012 - public forum at Lakewood Yacht Club sponsored by AJ Ross, former Commodore

November 2012 - January 2013 presentations to organizations and gather City Council Resolutions, boating support resolutions come in from TMCA, Lakewood Yacht Club, Houston Yacht Club, San Leon Sailing Club

GLO's Mark Havens, atty. conducts legal research on ownership of structures, GLO publishing and sending notices of violation. This was a key part of state effort to assure legal due process followed, but also to preserve claims against former owners

January 2013 - John Mesiroff, GLO supervisor for facilities joins project, very strong supporter

February 6, 2013 - key meeting with Jerry Patterson, Commissioner of the GLO; Larry Laine, Chief Deputy; Robert Hatter, John Mesiroff and Tony Williams; Commissioner supports efforts, asks key questions; later reported commissioner told staff to “Get it done.”

April 2013- Blue & White removed by former owner

June 2013- August 2013 continuous program of removals, large cranes, barges mobilized, Mesiroff oversees project

Where does the clean-up stand now? Eight of the original nine structures in the Project Area have been completely removed. The most blighted area was near Redfish. As you look out over the Bay, that area has a completely clear horizon. The one remaining structure in the Project Area has been leased to a new operator who will clean it up, place navigation lights on it and make it safe for boaters. And the State has required the new operator post a bond to ensure money will be there for the eventual removal. There is a lot more to be done in other parts of the Bay system, but the State, in cooperation with local recreational boating organizations, the GBF and city governments has taken a big step in cleaning up the derelict structures.

Stewart’s curiosity about and research of abandoned oil and gas drill sites that are hazardous to recreational boaters led to what will be an ongoing project by the State of Texas. The state now has an engineer “who is all over” cleaning up the derelict sites, according to Stewart. John Mesiroff of GLO will ensure the Galveston Bay debris removal continues.   He already has his eye on the areas east of the Houston Ship Channel.

The GLO is currently investigating all Texas waters to identify unauthorized and derelict structures. Should a structure be identified, all efforts will be made to determine the responsible party and bring the structure in compliance with all agreements, State wide rules and regulations. Future removals will be prioritized and scheduled as funds and or resources are available.


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