Friday, April 24, 2015

The Strange Saga of the Oleg Naydenov

Ten days ago, a big Russian fishing trawler, the Oleg Naydenov, caught on fire in port in the Canary Islands.  Spanish authorities had the burning vessel towed out to sea, where it sank in water nearly two miles deep about 15 miles south of the island of Gran Canaria. 

Map showing the strange final voyage of the Oleg Naydenov as it was towed, in flames, from port and taken out to sea.
Our tracking map showing the path of the vessel that did the towing. AIS data copyright exactEarth/ShipView.

As predicted, fuel-oil is leaking from the sunken trawler and is reportedly coming ashore on some of the tourist-haven beaches. We're curious because the slick we see very faintly on satellite images from April 21 and 23 clearly shows the oil moving to the south, away from the islands. The cloud patterns and wind-shadow indicate very strong winds blowing to the south, which would tend to push the oil in that direction.  So it's a bit of a mystery to us where the oil is coming from, that is washing ashore now on Gran Canaria.  Check out the sequence of images below.  

This vessel has a back story. In early 2012 it was busted for fishing illegally in the waters off Senegal, apparently multiple times, after a dogged pursuit by Greenpeace. So this oil spill could be considered part of the "collateral damage" of IUU fishing activity.

MODIS satellite image taken April 23, 2015, showing the southern Canary Islands, location of the sunken trawler Oleg Naydenov, and oil slicks (yellow) detected on satellite imagery from April 21 and 23. Coast of Africa at lower right. Note spiral-shaped cloud patterns indicating Karman vortices forming downwind of the islands, suggesting strong wind blowing from the north-northeast. The "J" shape of the slicks suggests they may be affected by a Karman vortex..
Detail from MODIS satellite image taken April 21, 2015. Slick appears as a bright streak trailing to the south-southwest away from the site of the sunken trawler. Clouds (and shadows) at lower left.
Same image as above, with slick highlighted in yellow.
Detail from MODIS satellite image taken April 23, 2015. Same area and scale as detail images above. Slick appears as faint dark feature in this image, due to different sunglint geometry than in the April 21 image.
Same image as above, with slick highlighted in yellow.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

5 Years Ago....What's Changed?

Five years ago today -- Earth Day -- the drifting, burning hulk of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig finally capsized and sank in water a mile deep out in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven men had been killed and 17 injured in the explosion that had wracked the structure on the night of April 20.  We crossed our fingers and hoped the well had choked itself in debris. But soon, viscous oil began bubbling relentlessly to the surface, and what would quickly become the nation's worst accidental oil spill, and eventually the world's worst, was spreading inexorably across the Gulf, overpowering our pathetically feeble efforts to contain and capture the oil.

The final hours of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig on April 22, 2010.

SkyTruth's response was to independently document and measure the growing oil slick, and with help from Gulf oceanographer Ian MacDonald, challenge the unrealistically low "flow-rate" estimates coming from BP and being passed along to the public by the federal government. One positive result of that challenge was the government's admission that it is both possible and important to measure a disaster -- to know your enemy, so you can fight it to win, and be ready for the next battle. Another is the additional billions of dollars in fines that BP is responsible for, most of which will be applied to helping restore the crippled Gulf ecosystem, and the lives and livelihoods of people who depend on a clean, healthy, functioning Gulf.

Many folks have made important, thoughtful observations about the ensuing environmental, social and economic catastrophe, and what we've learned; Joel Achenbach and Ben Raines among them.  We can't add much to the avalanche of "5 Years After" musings, but here are some of our thoughts as we look ahead:

Drilling is booming, and riskier than ever.  Industry is doing fine: in the Gulf, dozens of rigs are at work drilling wells in water far deeper than the site of the BP spill in 2010, drilling wells that go much farther below the seafloor than BP's doomed Macondo well, rushing to tap the potentially lucrative but technically challenging "sub-salt" play.  As one industry observer notes, "It's not rocket science.  Oh no, it's much, much more complicated."

Accidents and near-misses continue in the Gulf. For example: earlier this month, a relatively small company you've probably never heard of had to abandon a very expensive deepwater well they were drilling 150 miles offshore due to a mechanical failure in the riser, the pipe that connects the well to the surface. In 2012, three workers were killed in an explosion and fire on an oil platform. 

The response by regulators has been slow and inadequate. Few of the recommendations of the National Oil Spill Commission have been implemented. Congress has taken little action to tighten up the oversight of offshore drilling. The Obama administration just proposed new requirements for the design, maintenance and operation of blowout preventers to beef them up, so they can actually cut through off-center pipe, but the requirements are being phased in over many years; and BOEM is only "studying" the possible requirement that BOPs be able to cut through the joints, where sections of pipe are screwed together, that make up 10% of a typical drillstring.  This remains an obvious and glaring vulnerability in our last line of defense, a one-in-ten chance of failure. 

Industry has focused on winning the last war. Offshore drilling boosters claim industry has fixed the problem, but base that claim mostly on the development of a piece of hardware called a "capping stack," modeled on the final engineering fix deployed during the BP spill that finally tamed the runaway well. These new devices are untried, but might work if we have another situation very similar to the Macondo blowout: an accessible wellhead on the seafloor, with an intact well casing.  (The capping stack would sit on the dock, useless, in a scenario like the one Chevron experienced off Brazil in 2011: a blowout beneath the seafloor).  It would also take as much as 2-3 weeks to assemble, mobilize, and deploy a capping stack for a deepwater blowout far offshore, meaning an inevitable spill of tens of millions of gallons:  BP's Macondo well was gushing 2.5 million gallons of oil per day, and actually could have been much worse -- possibly up to 4.6 million gallons per day.  Over 21 days, that's nearly 100 million gallons of oil in the water before our first try at stopping a blowout.

And that leads to our final point for today.

We're ignoring our staggering inability to clean up oil once it's in the water.  The federal government requires companies to calculate a worst-case spill scenario in the event of a total loss of well control, and submit for federal approval an oil spill response plan that could effectively handle all that oil.  But the plans, which remain difficult to find, rely on the same old response methods -- skimming, burning, and chemical dispersal -- that woefully underperformed during the BP spill under mostly benign weather conditions.  And we still don't know if the use of chemical dispersants is a good idea or a bad one.

< Like the Exxon Valdez spill, and the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, our next serious oil spill may prove to be a disturbing surprise: the result of a unique combination of failures that we haven't been able to anticipate, creating a uniquely challenging situation that we're not prepared for.  I'd like to see a sustained national effort to reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels that matches or exceeds our society's investment in exploring for and producing those resources.  But as long as we continue to forge ahead with drilling ultradeep high-pressure wells in ever-deeper water, the very least we can do is to invest in a serious, continuous effort to improve our ability to clean up oil in the water.

Because as long as we continue to drill offshore, another major spill is an ever-present risk.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Other Gulf Oil Disaster: Chronic Offshore Pollution

The problem of chronic offshore oil pollution has been getting some overdue attention lately (see our blog post on this topic yesterday). So as we approach the fifth year since the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster began, we thought it would be interesting to show you all of the oil and hazardous material spills that have been reported in the Gulf since the BP spill was stopped in July 2010. Here is a map showing spills reported to the National Response Center (NRC) from July 2010 to April 2015. Each dot on the map represents an individual spill report.

Nearly 10,000 spills in the Gulf have been reported to the NRC since July 2010. This map does not include releases to the air, only spills to the waters of the Gulf. Click here to see a full-screen version.

Now not all of the incidents in this map are due to oil and gas drilling. Some reports refer to spills from boating accidents or leaks from other industrial operations. But compare the pollution reported in the waters off Texas and Louisiana with the reports made in the waters west of Florida. Florida has far fewer pollution reports – not because they drill more safely or don't report to the NRC – but because there aren't any producing offshore oil wells in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.  

What does this map imply about the volume of contaminants flowing into the Gulf? Stay tuned...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Chronic Pollution From Offshore Drilling -- How Bad Is It?

Nobody really knows.

And that's a ridiculous state of affairs in the 21st century.  Almost 5 years after the BP spill riveted everyone's attention on the risks of offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, we're still relying almost entirely on pollution reports submitted to the government by the polluters themselves who are, of course, subject to fines and other sanctions for those spills. Evidence of non-reporting and chronic under-reporting of oil spills was uncovered by our 2012 analysis of NRC reports and comparison with satellite imagery, an analysis recently validated in a peer-reviewed study published by scientists at Florida State University. 

And just today, the Associated Press published a jaw-dropping, in-depth story and video describing the chronic Taylor Energy oil leak a few miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico that's been steadily oozing oil into the Gulf since 2004. This is a site that our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, researchers at Florida State, and tireless pilot and biologist Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care have documented repeatedly since we first "discovered" it on satellite imagery back in the spring of 2010.  Yet even industry folks were surprised when AP reporters contacted them about the ongoing, apparently unfixable Taylor Energy leak. 

Some information is better than none, but the unverified and demonstrably inaccurate information we get is not a credible foundation for building public policy governing offshore oil and gas development. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Offshore Drilling: 5 Years After BP, How Bad Can A Spill Be?

This is the week that everyone will be rolling out their "5 Years After the BP Spill" stories. Scientists  are pointing out how much we still don't understand about the spill and its long-term impacts; environmental groups are warning that little has changed and we're just as close to disaster now as we were on April 19, 2010; the federal government is announcing new rules to assure us that new drilling off the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic Ocean will be safe; industry is touting new containment technology to respond on the seafloor to any future loss of well control.  

Some good news, some warnings that we've got a ways to go before we can relax when it comes to deepwater, high-pressure offshore drilling.  One of our concerns is that despite the new containment technology -- which is designed to stop a runaway well if we have another scenario very similar to BP's infamous Macondo well -- we're still inept when it comes to cleaning up oil once it hits the water. The government's estimate is we only managed to recover, burn, chemically disperse or divert 25% of the oil that gushed from Macondo.

Why does this matter? 

Because we can't confidently predict what will cause the next catastrophic oil spill. We're always surprised when it happens.  Maybe it will be the sinking of a fully loaded FPSO.  Maybe it will be a seafloor landslide, like the one that hit the Taylor Energy platform, that wipes out a deepwater production hub connected to dozens of high-pressure wells.  The abandonment of a deepwater well last week by Cobalt Energy is an example.  In this case, they detected the failure of a seal on the riser pipe, and abandoned drilling before the well hit the reservoir target.  Call that a successful failure, if you will. But if the well had already been in production, what would the worst-case scenario spill look like if there had been a total loss of well control? 

Here is the worst-case discharge (WCD) summary from Cobalt's federally approved oil spill response plan for their North Platte prospect. Note that "mbo" = thousands of barrels of oil.

The top-kill operation presumably envisions using one of the new well-containment "capping stack" devices.  In that scenario, where the well doesn't naturally bridge over by clogging itself with debris, it could take 30 days to successfully kill the well, resulting in a worst-case spill of 605,000 barrels of oil.  That's 25.4 million gallons of oil in the water.  If we're going to continue to push into deeper water, farther offshore, with wells tapping high-pressure reservoirs miles below the seafloor, maybe we should put a lot more effort into figuring out how to effectively clean up spilled oil.  

If we can't -- or just plain won't -- do that, then we shouldn't be drilling where the consequences of failure are high.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Stuff Breaks.

Today we almost overlooked a little news item: Cobalt Energy, a relatively new and self-described "boutique" company working on the bleeding edge of deepwater oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico (targeting the highly challenging, and ultradeep, "subsalt" play), had to abandon an appraisal well they were drilling more than 150 miles out in the central Gulf of Mexico.  The drilling was being done to assess the potential of their "North Platte" prospect, in water about 4,800 feet deep.

The well had reached a depth of over 20,000 feet and was being drilled from a ship called the Rowan Reliance. This was a very expensive well to abandon.
Rowan Reliance © Cees Bustraan

So what happened? According to this terse news account, there was a failure of a seal in the riser -- the pipe that extends from the seafloor up to the drillship. Luckily in this instance we don't expect any spill to result from this accident, but it's a stark reminder: stuff breaks. Mechanical failures and human mistakes are inevitable, with increasingly high stakes as offshore drilling pushes ever deeper.  

We can, and do, build incredible things in our pursuit of oil and gas.  But in water more than a mile deep, with high-pressure wells extending miles below the seafloor...will we be able to fix them when they break?

Position of the drillship Rowan Reliance on April 10, 2015, showing location of the abandoned deepwater appraisal well in Cobalt Energy's North Platte prospect. Existing platforms and pipelines shown in orange. Seafloor topography indicated by shaded relief.
Detail of AIS vessel tracking data showing the location of the Rowan Reliance on April 10, 2015. The track shows it arrived in the area in mid-January, and apparently drilled a well at a location a few miles northeast of the failed appraisal well.  AIS data copyright exactEarth / ShipView.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Fire at Pemex Oil Platform in the Gulf of Mexico

Before dawn on Wednesday morning an explosion at an offshore oil processing platform in the Gulf of Mexico lit up the sky just north of the Yucatan Peninsula. Over 300 workers were evacuated from the facility, but the explosion claimed four lives and injured 45.

Photo Credit – Carlos Hern├índez's Twitter feed @carlitosahm via Maritime Executive

Pemex, Mexico's state-run oil company, reports that the fire at the Abkatun-A Permanente platform was extinguished late Wednesday and that there is no risk of a major oil spill. The platform involved was a processing facility rather than an oil well or drilling rig, therefore the risk of a blowout and uncontrolled oil spill should be relatively small. 

This latest disaster, however, is a reminder that the Gulf of Mexico has seen two of the world's largest accidental oil spills; the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 (at least 210 million gallons spilled) and the Ixtoc I disaster in 1979 (140 million gallons spilled). The Ixtoc I disaster, though widely forgotten and dwarfed by the more recent spill on the U.S. side of the Gulf, also occurred in Campeche Sound only 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to the northwest of yesterday's explosion. Ixtoc I was also operated by Pemex.

We have reviewed the publicly available satellite imagery from MODIS and Landsat, and so far have not observed any oil slick associated with this incident. However, on a MODIS image from Wednesday afternoon we did observe a very prominent plume of black smoke extending over 100 km (60 miles) to the northwest.

The reddish-orange spots on the near-infrared image are gas flares, a permanent fixture in this oilfield according to our global flaring map. The MODIS image from this morning is cloudier than yesterday, but the smoke plume is significantly smaller and whiter. The smaller plume is consistent with Pemex's claim that the fire has been extinguished, or at least contained. 

Checking the datafeed from the European Space Agency's new Sentinel 1A radar satellite, we found that an image had been collected on April 1, the day of the explosion. Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) is very useful for spotting oil slicks, but the dark patterns on this image appear to be small, miscellaneous oil slicks commonly observed in this busy offshore oil field. Metal objects, such as ships and oil platforms, are highly reflective and appear as bright white spots. You can easily see from the constellation of metal objects just how crowded this oil field is with ships, workboats, oil platforms, and other infrastructure. 

We also took a look back in time at Landsat, and while the most recent images were cloudy, we found a clear image from February revealing what business-as-usual looks like in this shallow offshore field. Flaring is clearly visible from a number of platforms, as are small but numerous slicks. 

We will continue to keep a close eye on this story as it develops, and you can too using NASA's Worldview portal for MODIS imagery. It appears that Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 will not be in position to collect another image for more than a week. Let us know if you see anything interesting by commenting on this blog post.