The looming decommissioning liabilities of offshore energy producers have been a focus of the federal government in recent years. One recent case out of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Taylor Energy v. United States, highlights the tension between the federal government’s desire to maintain financial security for decommissioning activities, and that of an operator whose security is tied up indefinitely while the government awaits technological advances to allow for safe decommissioning.
The case relates to a trust agreement between Taylor Energy and the United States, established to secure Taylor’s decommissioning liabilities for 28 wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Taylor completed certain decommissioning work for which it was reimbursed by the trust. However, with over $400 million remaining in the trust, Taylor and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) concluded that the ecological benefits of further decommissioning would be outweighed by the ecological risks. But despite recognizing that the limitations of current technology made the environmental impacts of further decommissioning work unjustifiable, the BSEE declined to release Taylor from its decommissioning obligations and instead decided to await “changes in technology and a better understanding of the undersea environment.” Because Taylor’s decommissioning obligations remained in place, the U.S. refused to release the remaining funds in the trust.
Taylor claimed that the United States should release the remaining funds in the trust because “decommissioning the remaining wells is not ‘currently technologically feasible.’” Taylor asserted that Louisiana law applied to the trust agreement, and that under Louisiana law every contract must be completed within an ascertainable term. By holding the trust funds until decommissioning was complete, Taylor argued that the government was essentially holding the funds in perpetuity given the technological infeasibility of completing decommissioning. Taylor also asserted that the agreement was premised on an impossibility (the full decommissioning of the wells), and/or a mutual mistake of the parties (that the wells could be decommissioned).