Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sanctions on Russia to Freeze ExxonMobil's Arctic Drilling Efforts

Last week the U.S. Treasury Dept. issued new sanctions that are expected to force ExxonMobil to halt its current Arctic drilling operations, a $700 million dollar partnership with Russian energy company Rosneft. Earlier sanctions only applied to new financial transactions and therefore did not stop the energy giants from moving the West Alpha drilling rig hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle to begin drilling for oil in the Kara Sea. On August 9, Vladimir Putin gave the go-ahead to start drilling in the Universitetskaya (Университетская) Prospect, making this venture the northernmost oil well in Russia. However, ExxonMobil now has just until the end of the month to wrap up their operations.

ExxonMobil and Rosneft planned to complete the project during the brief ice-free season between August and October. In early July, barely a month before the West Alpha rig arrived from Norway, the Kara Sea was still covered in ice (above). 

As we've written before, there are a number of reasons to be concerned about drilling in the Arctic. We've seen the devastation caused by a blowout in the relatively calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and this drilling operation is 385 miles northeast of Gazprom's controversial Prirazlomnaya platform that Greenpeace activists boarded last year.

What is so worrying about drilling in the Arctic? Aside from the unforgiving weather that can tear a 28,000 ton drill rig from its support vessels and drive it ashore, there are no technologies proven to clean up spilled oil from the ice that covers the region most of the year. And this ice is always moving: consider what the Kara Sea looked like in July (above) compared to August (below). At 68² km, the 11 km long chunk of ice identified above is larger than Manhattan.  According to Rosneft, the West Alpha rig is outfitted with sensors to track advancing sea ice, and they claim to be able to shut-in the well and move the rig if necessary.

(Above) As of August 22 the ice had retreated. 

Clouds often block the view of electro-optical satellites like Landsat, but synthetic aperture radar on satellites like the European Space Agency's Sentinel 1-A can peer through clouds and collect data on vessel locations, oil slicks, and sea ice, day or night. While we wait for Sentinel to begin routine data collection, we are watching vessel activity around the West Alpha rig using satellite AIS tracking data. (To read more about our work with satellite AIS, click here)

(Above): AIS data show the path taken by the West Alpha rig as it was towed from Norway to its current location in the Kara Sea.

(Above): With our AIS data viewer we can "see" all of the broadcasting vessels operating around the West Alpha. This may also allow us to see if vessels appear to engage in oil-spill clean up operations. 

Looking at Landsat's 15-meter panchromatic band (Band 8), we can just make out the rig and several support vessels. We've been able to definitely identify the two vessels east of the rig. The furthest vessel to the east is the REM Supporter and the vessel in the middle is the Loke Viking. The identity of the vessel right beside the rig is unknown. 

It is worth noting that the West Alpha rig has not broadcast its location since August 14. It is not to clear to us from the IMO regulations if they are required to continually broadcast their location until they are safely back in port, but it is not uncommon for drill rigs to stop broadcasting when they are "on-station" and not moving.

According to Rosneft, drilling began in early August and was expected to take two months. But under these new sanctions Exxon has to wind down their activity and secure the well by the end of September. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Disappearing Mississippi Delta, 1972 - 2014

Like many folks, we were astonished by the recent ProPublica / The Lens mapping work showing the tremendous loss of marshland in the Mississippi Delta and adjacent parts of the Gulf coast.  There is an unholy alliance of factors responsible:  the rise in sea level due to melting onshore glaciers and icepack, and thermal expansion of the ocean, two consequences of global warming; the natural, inexorable subsidence of the Delta as that huge pile of sediment compresses and sinks under it's own awesome weight, actually depressing the Earth's crust; the diversion of Mississippi River sediments away from the marshes and out into the Gulf, thanks to an impressive system of dams, levees, and pumps designed to control flooding and aid navigation; and the accelerated erosion of marshlands thanks to the criss-crossing network of ditches and canals dug willy-nilly by the oil and gas industry over many decades -- the death by 1,000 cuts.  

This last factor has prompted some of Louisiana's coastal parishes to sue the oil and gas industry, a "bite the hand that feeds you" course of action that might have been unthinkable just a few years ago.  But desperate times breed desperate measures.  There is an ambitious $50 billion plan to "fix" the Delta.  The billions of dollars in Clean Water Act fines that BP and their partners will pay for the 2010 BP / Deepwater Horizon oil and gas disaster could provide a solid downpayment on this recovery plan.

Here's our own look at the severity of the problem.  Thanks to the colossal archive of Landsat satellite imagery available for free via the US Geological Survey, we can time-travel back to the early 1970s to get a big-picture perspective on how much has changed.  Click on the images to see a larger version:  

1972: Mississippi Delta and Louisiana coastline as seen on August 7, 1972, just 15 days after the launch of the first Landsat Earth-imaging satellite.
2014: This mosaic of two images collected by the Landsat-8 satellite in 2014 starkly illustrates the loss of marsh vegetation (green)  over the past four decades.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Higher-Resolution Look at United Kalavrvta

At the suggestion of Rob Simmon from NASA, we've produced a view of the United Kalavrvta from August 4, 2014, using the high-resolution panchromatic band (Band 8) of the Landsat-8 image.  Much sharper, as expected.  And now we measure the vessel length on the image at 282 meters -- very close to the 275-meter length reported by Fleetmon for this supertanker. 

Compare with the lower-resolution multispectral composite from yesterday's blog post:

Detail from Landsat-8 image taken August 4, 2014. Panchromatic band (15 meter pixels).  United Kalavrvta marked by red circle.  A similar-sized vessel also appears to be anchored about 4km to the west.  Compare with multispectral image below. 
Matching detail from multispectral (visible band) composite with 30 meter pixels.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Playing Hide-and-Seek! With an Oil Tanker.

Supertankers loaded with crude have been making the news recently, mostly because they can't find a place to sell the stuff. These tankers departed from Kurdistan, but Iraq claims the oil they carry is their property and the Kurds don't have the right to sell it.  This global political dispute is playing out on the water in an interesting, albeit risky, way: the tankers are unable to come into port, so are lingering offshore, fully loaded, waiting for some kind of resolution.

Late in July, we tracked the tanker United Leadership as it roamed across the Mediterranean and loitered in the Atlantic off the coast of Morocco.

Now we're following one that's a little closer to home:  the United Kalavrvta has been parked in a holding pattern in the northern Gulf of Mexico about 50 nautical miles southeast of Galveston. A few days ago Reuters noted that the tanker had "disappeared" from satellite tracking data, speculating they may be trying to offload their 42-million-gallon cargo of crude onto another vessel.  The US Coast Guard weighed in with this comment: 
A Coast Guard official said the vessel in the Gulf of Mexico might have turned off its beacon, sailed beyond antennas that monitor transponders, or perhaps some antennas might have been taken out of service.
Um, that's not quite right: tankers are required by international maritime law, AND by US Coast Guard regulations, to continually broadcast their position, heading, speed and other information using a Class A AIS system when they are between ports. There should be no threat of piracy in the US Gulf of Mexico, so the captain has no legal justification for turning the system off, until the vessel is safely in port.  Which it is not.  And the AIS signals sent by the relatively powerful Class A transmitters on tankers and other large cargo vessels are readily picked up by AIS satellites, which can cover the entire ocean.  If the captain turned off his AIS, perhaps the US Coast Guard needs to go pay him a visit and enforce US law.  

So where is the United Kalavrvta?  Right where it's been for weeks, since it showed up on July 27.  See below for the details: our vessel-tracking expert Bjorn prepared this series of maps and info yesterday, using our satellite AIS data feed from exactEarth.  We hope the Coast Guard can make use of this to resolve the inconsistencies in broadcasting by this loaded supertanker.  After all, it's hurricane season in the Gulf, and a fully loaded tanker that is not broadcasting its location to all the vessels in the vicinity is a hazard to navigation, and a potentially colossal environmental disaster waiting to happen.  
Latest Position at: 2014-09-02 19:23:57 UTC
Latitude: 28.585117 Longitude: -94.249783
Course: 252.0°

Speed: 0.0kn
The United Kalavrvta is at anchor in the same location off Galveston. They resumed AIS broadcast but with some unusually long gaps between positions. Their last position was about 32 hours ago. Between the 26th and the 28th there was a 47 hour gap, between the 28th and the 30th there was a 53 hour gap. 

AIS data track showing path of United Kalavrvta over the past 90 days.
AIS data from September 2 showing position of United Kalavrvta at anchor about 60 miles southeast of Galveston.
Zoomed-in detail showing AIS data for United Kalavrvta since August 24; the tight circular path indicates it's anchored (probably by the bow) and drifting around the anchor point as it gets pushed by wind and current.

Just for grins, we thought we'd see if this vessel shows up on Landsat-8 satellite imagery.  The most recent cloud-free image of this area was taken on August 4.  Sure enough, the faint pattern of a large oceangoing vessel appears exactly where the AIS data say the tanker was located on that day.  

It's tough to hide a supertanker:

Part of a Landsat-8 satellite image taken on August 4, showing a vessel in the reported AIS position for the United Kalavrvta.
Detail from Landsat-8 image showing a large vessel (pale elongated blob) at the AIS position reported by the United Kalarvrvta on August 4, 2014. Vessel appears to be roughly 240 meters long. FleetMon data indicate United Kalarvrvta is 275 meters long.  This is within the error of Landsat-8 imagery, which has 30-meter pixels.  Note another, similar-size vessel at center left.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

3,300 ft. Fissure in the Mexican Desert: No Locusts, But You Should Still 'Freak Out'

Last week video emerged of a giant fissure in the Northern Mexican desert, 3,300 feet long and up to 25 feet deep. Speculation centered at first around an earthquake, but the region is not known for seismic activity. I personally checked out the USGS earthquake data because the Buena Vista Copper mine (the fourth largest in the world by output) is only about 150 miles north of the enormous crack, and earlier this month they spilled 40,000 cubic meters of sulphuric acid into two rivers during the worst spill in Mexico's modern mining history. But I found no reports of tremors in the region and authorities were skeptical that this had anything to do with an earthquake.

Fast forward to yesterday (August 26, 2014), the Washington Post posted a story with this headline: "Why no one should freak out about the giant crack that opened in the Mexico desert." The Post reports:
The chair of the geology department at the University of Sonora, in the northern Mexican state where this “topographic accident” emerged, said that the fissure was likely caused by sucking out groundwater for irrigation to the point the surface collapsed.
“This is no cause for alarm,” Inocente Guadalupe Espinoza Maldonado said. “These are normal manifestations of the destabilization of the ground.” 
I'm sorry, no. These are not normal manifestations of natural activity, this is the result of human activity run amok. Just because Cthulhu isn't clambering out of the breach to wreak havoc on humankind DOES NOT MEAN we shouldn't be alarmed by the fact we've sucked so much water out of the ground that the surface of the earth is collapsing. 

Barely a month ago NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory warned of 'shocking' groundwater losses in the Colorado River basin, a major watershed to the north of Sonora with similar climate and landuse. Using gravitational data from the satellite-based Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) instrument, scientists found "the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater. That's almost double the volume of the nation's largest reservoir, Nevada's Lake Mead. More than three-quarters of the total -- about 41 million acre feet (50 cubic kilometers) -- was from groundwater."

NASA's measurements of groundwater based on gravity. Areas in red show a deficit in groundwater, blue indicates surplus.    Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The Post also reports that cotton used to be a major crop, but intrusion of saltwater from the Sea of Cortez caused some areas to become unusable for agriculture. However, there is still plenty of large-scale agriculture as evidenced by the Landsat image below.

 Image Credit: NASA/USGS via SkyTruth

(Above) Hermosillo region of Sonora, Mexico, as seen by Landsat 8, on August 17, 2014. Bright green rectangles in the middle of the desert are irrigated fields. However, around the green fields, there appear to many fields that are not being irrigated this season – seen as tan rectangles with a faint grid of roads in between parcels. The blue geometric shapes on the left appear to be salt-drying pans.  

Groundwater reserves can take centuries to recharge, so industrial-scale extraction of water for big agriculture in the middle of the desert cannot continue forever. In the US, water managers are facing an uphill battle to control water use in the Colorado River Basin and from the Ogallala Aquifer which stretches from Texas to South Dakota. Factor in that hydraulic fracturing is permanently removing water from the hydrological cycle in some of the most drought-stressed regions of the West, and you have a serious problem. 

To be clear, the southwestern US and western Mexico are not necessarily about to fall in on themselves all at once, but they are struggling to support large-scale agriculture, enormous demand for water from a revitalized onshore oil and gas industry, and a growing population. Maybe this chasm in the desert doesn't herald the coming of Judgement Day, but perhaps we should be 'freaking out' about our poor judgement.

Friday, August 22, 2014

SkyTruth Releases Dynamic Map of Global Flaring

SkyTruth is releasing a dynamic map of satellite data visualizing the wasteful practice of natural gas flaring around the world. The SkyTruth Global Flaring Visualization compiles nightly infrared data from NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite, and filters it to display gas flares associated with oil and gas production. The map is a direct result of a crowdfunded groundtruthing mission last year in North Dakota's Bakken Shale where flares light up the night sky.

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 4.18.02 AM
Flaring from a Bakken shale wellpad just outside Williston, North Dakota, as seen by a camera aboard a high-altitude balloon launched by SkyTruth and Space for All in Sept. 2013.

“This new tool makes the scale and frequency of flaring more comprehensible and less abstract,” said Paul Woods, Chief Technology Officer at SkyTruth. “Hopefully, enabling everyone to see where, when, and how often operators are flaring will create public pressure on government and industry to reduce the waste of this hard-won natural resource,” Woods continued.

Also released today, SkyTruth's partners at Earthworks have produced a report on flaring in the Bakken and Texas' Eagle Ford Shale, finding that North Dakota drillers have reported burning $854 million in natural gas since 2010 and that neither state independently tracks how much gas has been lost forever through flaring. Earthworks also calculated that the 130 billion cubic feet of natural gas burned in the Bakken and Eagle Ford Shale has produced the equivalent of 1.5 million cars’ emissions of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas.

SkyTruth's flaring map puts these enormous numbers in perspective, and can enable regulators and citizen watchdogs to see if companies really are taking action to reduce the occurrence of flaring. Click below for more information and to see a full-screen version of the map.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

FrackFinder OH: New Aerial Survey of Eastern Ohio Fracking

Image: Wellpad in Caroll County, OH – May 2014. Credit: LightHawk/FracTracker 

SkyTruth is announcing a very special edition of our FrackFinder Ohio project, courtesy of our partners at FracTracker and Lighthawk. With FrackFinder Ohio: Wellpad Mapper - 2014, you can map drilling in Caroll, Columbiana, Harrison, and Jefferson counties using brand new aerial survey imagery flown by LightHawk pilots back in May.

So far, all our FrackFinder projects have used aerial photos from the USDA's National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), but this gives you a chance to do some skytruthing with the freshest imagery around. Last year we had to wait about six months to get the latest high-resolution USDA imagery, and they only survey once every 2-3 years. This project is one of many exciting examples of how the costs of remote sensing technology are coming down; meaning we can do more frequent and better-quality skytruthing. 

In this phase of FrackFinder Ohio we are continuing our wellpad mapper project, so all we need you to do is indicate if there is visible drilling activity at the site we show you. Based on the data from the 2013 imagery you should see drilling infrastructure at nearly every site. Just click the link below, we'll show you a quick tutorial, and you'll be ready to start mapping fracking...

There are only about 140 sites for each person to review, so this project will go fast. Then come back to help us measure the total area impacted by drilling.