Drilling for Data on Offshore Wells

June 23, 2021

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For reporters covering the conflict over offshore drilling, an Interior Department database offers a wealth of info about offshore wells. Above, a rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: Jennifer A. Dlouhy/Houston Chronicle, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Reporter’s Toolbox: Drilling for Data on Offshore Wells

By Joseph A. Davis

The decades-old controversy that has raged over offshore drilling flared anew recently as a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s temporary halt to new leases on federal land (including those on the outer continental shelf).

So to help cover the ongoing debate, it may be useful to know about the database of information on offshore wells from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

While not all data about leasing and drilling on federal lands is available or easily accessible — this much is. And it can show some meaningful patterns and tell some meaningful stories.


Where the data comes from

To understand what the data is and how it is organized, journalists first need to understand the bureaucracy, especially a major reorganization that happened at the Interior Department in 2010-2011, during the Obama administration and after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

The reorganization was largely inspired by a major scandal in 2008 at the former Minerals Management Service, in which leasing officials were found to be sharing sex, drugs and cash with oil and gas firm employees.

It’s a great story (may require subscription), although perhaps less so for data geeks. The moral of the tale is that agencies collecting royalties should not get too close to the companies paying them.

The point is that the Interior Department’s offshore leasing, now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, was separated from oversight of well safety by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE.

BOEM is the agency that collects the royalties — and that’s the one we focus on here. BSEE is the one that issues the permits, and has data resources we will cover in a future Toolbox.


How to use the data smartly

The query launchpad for BOEM data is found here. It’s a powerful, sophisticated and potentially intimidating database, so you might find a more gentle approach by using the Quick Data Online Query form.

The main query form allows you to search by many criteria. One of the most important is company — not as simple as it seems, since corporations spawn subsidiaries and offshoots like eels (BP, for instance, has seven).


The database also has info about pipelines

connected to a given well, not to mention

production quantities, pressure, depth,

decommissioning costs and lots more.


The database also has info about pipelines connected to a given well, not to mention production quantities, pressure, depth, decommissioning costs and lots more.

Since multiple individual wells may be worked from a single offshore platform, it has data on that, too. It tells you as well whether a well is active, inactive or expired.

In addition, there’s data about whether bonds that should insure the well will meet permit conditions or pay for spills. And it is loaded with links to key documents, such as the all-important application for permit to drill, or APD. And less obvious is financial data, which gives production volume in barrels or cubic feet.

If you are a data journalism enthusiast, you will be pleased to know that the data (or reports on it) is downloadable in several standard formats, so you can play with it. The BOEM query page also gives you access to some pre-fab reports which are useful to explore.

The database does overlap to a degree with data kept by BSEE. For example, both share the eWell permit tracking database.

One gateway to some of the issues you may find via this data is this 2014 Interior Department Office of Inspector General report.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 25. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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