Friday, March 20, 2015

Federal Bureau’s Rule on Fracking Violates President’s Open Data Policy

Today the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) consigned the American public to remain ill-informed about hydraulic fracturing taking place on millions of acres of public property. The Bureau’s long-awaited “fracking rule” designates FracFocus, an industry-funded data repository, as the mechanism for public disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing at oil and gas drilling sites on federal and Indian lands. The ruling also affects 58 million acres of "split-estate" lands where the BLM controls the minerals but the surface is owned by private citizens, states, or other non-Federal entities.

Besides the fact that this decision flouts the President’s own Executive Order #13642 on Open Data, why are we so concerned about how the government manages fracking data? The reason is because this decision will deprive property and homeowners, scientists, decision-makers, emergency responders, healthcare professionals, and the general public of effective access to information that is vital to investigating the environmental, social, and public health impacts of modern oil and gas drilling.

We have said this all along, but you might find it more interesting to hear our points reiterated in this fine speech by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) who is a member of the House Natural Resources committee (whom John testified before regarding fracking and transparency only six months before).

BLM’s ruling comes less than a month after the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) and Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), the operators of, announced they would be adding new features to the system sometime in 2015. We are concerned that the federal government has no authority to ensure that FracFocus implements these proposed upgrades in a timely way that effectively addresses the serious shortcomings that we, and others, repeatedly detailed during the rulemaking process.

We have appealed repeatedly to the BLM through
 public comment and open letter to the Dept. of Interior officials, asking them to mandate public disclosure of this data in a manner compliant with this administration’s laudable Open Data policy. Unfortunately, designating a non-compliant, industry-funded platform as the curator and public outlet for this data flouts that policy, perpetuates obfuscation about the environmental and health impacts of the controversial “fracking” process, and will fuel continued public apprehension about oil and gas drilling.

Monday, March 9, 2015

National Response Center (NRC) Alerts Are Back!

This week we restored a nationwide data source to the SkyTruth Alerts system, our free email-based pollution and incident notification tool. For over a year, the public interface for the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center (NRC) has been offline, and we have not been able to send out notifications when new pollution reports are reported. The NRC receives approximately 30,000 reports a year, and about 10,000 of those are in the Gulf of Mexico. This outage substantially limited our ability to research pollution incidents and notify the public about oil and hazardous chemical releases, so we are pleased to announce that we can now provide weekly alerts from this important data source. 

The Coast Guard has been posting a weekly update of all the reports they receive, in the form of an excel spreadsheet. It has taken us a while to do the necessary data wrangling and re-coding, but we have finally found a way to incorporate this unwieldy file into our Alerts system so we can resume providing you the easy-to-understand email notifications that you've been missing.

A couple of details and cautions about how the restored system will work as long as we receive these weekly updates from the NRC:
  • Weekly Updates: We will issue Alerts every time the file is updated at, typically on Tuesday or Wednesday for everything that has been received in the preceding week.
  • >50 Alerts: Because you will be getting a weeks worth of reports all at once, there is a good chance your weekly update from the NRC may include more than 50 incidents, so we won't able to show everything in your daily email. There are a few simple solutions to this...
    • Break up your subscription into smaller areas. Just unsubscribe from your current subscription and re-subscribe to a several smaller areas.
    • When you get your weekly email, just click through to the Alerts map (below) to see everything that has happened in your area of interest. 


NOTE: This map is dynamically updated, but for performance reasons we can only show up to 50 incidents at a time, and we only display Alerts that have occurred in the last 30 days. Be sure to zoom in to the city or county level and pan around to make sure you are seeing everything. 

Unfortunately, this is best that we can do with the available data, and we won't be able to restore daily Alerts from NRC data until further upgrades are made on the government's end. In the meantime, we continue working on a general overhaul that will incorporate more data sources, new features, and improve the overall user experience. We currently have over 2,200 subscribers, which is far more than we ever imagined we would have when we built this tool for our own internal use. We hope you'll continue to find this service helpful, and while Alerts are free, your donation will certainly help us maintain and improve this resource.

To sign up for alerts, or to resubscribe to new areas, visit -

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Avast! Pirate Fishing Vessel Caught in Palau with Illegal Tuna & Shark Fins

SkyTruth's analysis of satellite-collected vessel location data recently helped land a ship apparently engaged in illegal fishing in the waters of Palau, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean (listen to the story on National Public Radio).

Bjorn's daily monitoring of AIS data revealed apparent fishing activity throughout December and January by a Taiwan-flagged tuna longliner called the ShinJyi Chyuu 33.  This vessel did not have a permit to fish in Palau's waters, so authorities in Palau launched a patrol boat to intercept it. Working well past midnight and into the early hours of January 21 (Shepherdstown time!), Bjorn provided updates on the vessel's position, heading and speed, and predicted where it would be when the patrol boat arrived on the scene more than 200 miles from port.  

30-day track of the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33 showing apparent fishing activity in the waters of Palau. AIS data copyright exactEarth.

We're told the Shin Jyi Chyuu was intercepted just 10 miles from the border of Palau's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The government of Palau reports that the holds of the Shin Jyi Chyuu were filled with tuna and shark fins. 
Busted: Shin Jyi Chyuu quarantined in port in Koror, Palau. Now what?

Not a bad day's work from the hills of West Virginia.  Will this "solve" the illegal fishing problem? Not by a long shot, but it does provide a real-life demonstration of what you can do using publicly available data and persistent monitoring. And we hope it will encourage the "good guys" -- who are fishing by the rules -- to voluntarily make themselves trackable.  

Shark fins purportedly found on the Shin Jyi Chyuu when it was brought to port in Palau for inspection. Source: Shark Defenders

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Federal Gov's Proposed 5-Year Offshore Drilling Plan

By now most of you have heard about the Obama administration's proposed 5-year plan for offshore oil and gas development, setting some areas in the Arctic Ocean off limits, but opening up a large chunk of the Atlantic Ocean for drilling along the East Coast off Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.  Here's the map:

Map showing areas in Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean (orange) proposed for oil and gas development in draft 5-year plan. Atlantic drilling areas begin 50 miles offshore. Source:  BOEM

And here is another interesting map, showing the cumulative oil slick "footprint" of BP's 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico, superimposed on the Atlantic coast, assuming an out-of-control well located more than 50 miles offshore:

Cumulative 2010 BP oil slick "footprint" overlain on Atlantic coast. Source: Center for American Progress.

And here's yet another map, showing the tracks of hurricanes along the Eastern seaboard from 2000 to 2013:

Tracks of hurricanes in the western Atlantic Ocean from 2000 to 2013. Source: NOAA.

In case you've missed our many posts on this topic, there is a continuous leak of oil in the Gulf of Mexico from the site of an oil platform that was knocked down by Hurricane Ivan more than 10 years ago. We've observed the slick at this location dozens of times since we "discovered" it in 2010, it's been documented on overflights by the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and others, and it's been sampled by scientists from Florida State University. Our most recent observation of the leak at that site last month showed a slick about 13 miles long. At times the slick has been more than 20 miles long (big enough to span the Beltway, for you DC-area readers). Cumulatively, we now estimate this leak has spilled anywhere from 300,000 gallons to nearly 1.4 million gallons of oil.  

Not a very comforting prospect for those who live along the coast where new offshore drilling is being contemplated.  By the way, you are encouraged to let the feds know what you think about this plan.  Go here to submit your comments.  The public comment period closes on March 30.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tanker Full Of Kurdish Crude Departs US Gulf

Remember the supertanker loaded with crude oil from Kurdistan that had nowhere to go to unload its cargo, and ended up hanging around in the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston, Texas?  That was months ago, but now the United Kalavrvta is on the move again, and appears to be heading out of the Gulf and off to Gibraltar.  And then?

Here is today's AIS tracking data for this vessel:

Path of the United Kalavrvta, January 27, 2015. AIS data © exactEarth

Friday, January 9, 2015

Taylor Energy Site - Leaking Oil Continuously Since 2004

It's been a while since we posted on the chronic oil leak from the Taylor Energy site just off the tip of the Mississippi Delta in the Gulf of Mexico.  Sad to say, nothing has changed: oil is continuing to flow unabated, as shown by the 13-mile-long slick in this Landsat-7 satellite image that was taken Wednesday morning:

Detail from Landsat-7 satellite image acquired January 7, 2015, showing 13-mile-long slick apparently emanating from Taylor Energy site. (Black lines at left and right sides of the image are data gaps caused by 2003 failure of the scan-line corrector on the Enhanced Thematic Mapper sensor.) 
Same image as above, without annotation. Slick is visible as faint dark streak on this unenhanced true-color image.
In case the slick is too hard to see, here is a 3-2-1 contrast-enhanced image. The colors are bit odd because of high-cirrus clouds, scan-lines, and the enhancement process. 
As far as we can determine, there is no plan by the responsible party, the oil and gas industry, the US Coast Guard or the EPA to permanently fix this leak and stop this ongoing pollution of public waters. 

This is not a big leak: it seems to be somewhat larger than the most productive natural oil seeps that are scattered in deep water throughout the central and western Gulf. So maybe "no action" is a practical decision to make.  But shouldn't the public get to participate in making that decision? 

PIPA: Protected At Last?

We've been using AIS tracking data to monitor fishing activity in and around the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), within the territorial waters of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. The management of this marine protected area has attracted criticism by allowing sustained commercial fishing, despite the "protected" label.  This video clip from Global Fishing Watch illustrates the controversy: it shows what we interpret to be pervasive fishing throughout the protected area in 2012-2013.  In fact, the level of fishing activity by large commercial vessels within PIPA appeared to be about the same as in adjacent, unprotected waters during that time period:

But big changes are afoot: as of January 1, commercial fishing within PIPA is no longer allowed.

Will this fishing ban have teeth? On December 31 (January 1 in PIPA), just 30 minutes after the closure took effect, we observed nine fishing vessels still in the area that were broadcasting an AIS signal.  Four appeared to be engaged in fishing activity, and five were in transit.

But by the next day, all of these vessels had moved out of PIPA. A few remained to fish nearby in Kiribati waters, like the Mataika, a South Korean purse seiner probably fishing for tuna, shown on the map below. 

We're encouraged by what we've seen so far. We'll keep watching in coming weeks using Global Fishing Watch to systematically monitor the effectiveness of the PIPA closure over time.  Look for a report from the GFW team in a few weeks -- hopefully confirming that this protected area is, indeed, protected at last.

Map showing locations of vessels using AIS in and around Phoenix Islands Protected Area (black line) on January 2, 2015. Vessel track is shown for Mataika, a purse seiner likely fishing for tuna.  Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries shown in blue. AIS data ©exactEarth via SkyTruth.