Friday, October 30, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - 4th Relief Attempt Fails

The fourth attempt to kill the out-of-control well on the Montara platform was scrubbed due to equipment problems. The well has now been leaking oil, gas and condensate for 70 days. And the operator, PTTEP, is now saying the well may not be plugged for "several more weeks." Indonesia officially confirmed that oil has reached their territorial waters, something we documented in satellite imagery back on September 3.

World Wildlife Fund just released a report on their research cruise to the spill-affected area, where they observed slicks and impacted wildlife. See their photos and video for an up-close look, and get the full report here. (Photo #4 shows researchers studying a SkyTruth image of this spill.) The Australian government has also released a report on the research and wildlife surveys they've conducted so far in the area.

Common Noddy recovered from the Montara oil spill by researchers working for the Australian government. Photo taken from their report.

Meanwhile, a second leaking well has been reported in another offshore field about 50km northwest of Montara. This is being described by the company as a minor gas leak but it's been ongoing for some time with no immediate prospect for repair. Fugitive methane emissions such as this from oil and gas facilities could be a major source of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Here's a visual of those emissions: we processed a MODIS satellite image of the Montara area that was taken on October 27. The well is still actively spewing oil, but the sunglint conditions on this image are not favorable so the slicks aren't visible. But a pale plume is emanating from the platform location and spreading out as it blows toward the Australian coast to the southeast. This is probably an aerial plume of hydrocarbon smog caused by the natural gas and vaporized natural gas condensate that are also blowing out of the damaged well. Usually those airborne emissions are invisible, but atmospheric conditions must have been right to form a visible smog:

See all of our images here. And if you like what we do here at SkyTruth, please support our work!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill: Two Months and Still Going

The ongoing Montara / West Atlas oil spill in the Timor Sea off Western Australia is now in its 62nd day. So far, three attempts to intercept and plug the leaking well have failed. Another attempt should happen today. A MODIS / Terra satellite image taken on October 21 - exactly two months after the blowout and spill began - shows slicks and sheen covering 2,600 square miles and approaching within 35 miles of the Kimberley coast. Satellite images show that oil has been moving to the south-southeast from the Montara platform, toward Australia, for the past few days:

NASA/MODIS satellite image, October 21, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis. See all of SkyTruth's images here.

The Australian Senate held a hearing this week on this relentless spill and the oil company, PTTEP, could offer no justification for their oft-repeated estimate that 400 barrels of oil per day were spewing from the damaged well. This estimate may be an order of magnitude too low. As reported today in The Australian:

A Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism official told Greens senator Rachel Siewert on Wednesday: "The maximum leakage rate from that well could be as much as 2000 barrels of oil a day, with condensate as well."

Senator Siewert acknowledged that did not mean 2000 barrels were actually coming out, rather that it was the maximum amount possible if the well were operating at full capacity.

At the 2,000 barrel per day rate, over 5 million gallons would have been spilled so far. That's getting into Exxon Valdez territory.

Could this happen in the US? We can't say until we get more details about what caused this blowout. But it's worth noting than in the US Gulf of Mexico, blowouts are not rare occurrences: the US Minerals Management Service has investigated 18 blowouts and 13 "loss of well control" incidents since 1983, several involving fires and fatalities. In 1992, the Greenhill Petroleum blowout and fire sent 70,000-120,000 gallons of oil into Timbalier Bay, Louisiana. Blowouts happened twice in 2007, and the most recent loss of well control was in 2008. And many more, less-serious, incidents can be found here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - 3rd Relief Attempt Fails

Ugh, back to the ongoing Montara / West Atlas oil spill. Looks like the third time's not the charm in the Timor Sea, where the latest attempt to get this massive spill under control has failed. Oil and natural gas have been spewing into the ocean and air off Western Australia for 58 days. The Montara oil platform -- and the West Atlas drill rig that was working there when the blowout occurred on August 21 -- are still at high risk for fire and explosion, and cannot be approached.

This is now being reported as the worst oil spill in Australia since offshore drilling began there 40 years ago.

So far we've seen no reports detailing what actually went wrong during drilling that caused a previously-completed well on the Montara platform to blow out. The Norwegian company that operates the West Atlas rig, Seadrill, is also currently working in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico on complex, ultra-deepwater drilling projects. Seadrill is a major global offshore drilling contractor, with a fleet of 42 drill rigs. They've got an office in Houston, Texas, and have identified the Gulf of Mexico as a targeted area of operation for the company.

At this point we've seen no evidence that a Montara-type drilling accident couldn't happen anywhere, including in US waters. The public deserves a comprehensive and independent analysis of the Montara failure, once the well has been plugged and the platform can be re-occupied.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Get the Popcorn Ready: 'Split Estate' Premieres Tomorrow

Whew, let's take a little break from the Timor Sea drilling spill and watch a movie about...drilling. Split Estate premieres tomorrow, October 17, on Planet Green (a Discovery Network channel). It's also showing on the 18th, 22nd and 23rd. You can view a trailer here.

Split Estate takes a tour of the Rockies, looking at the boom in natural-gas drilling from New Mexico to Montana and its impact on landowners - most of whom don't own the mineral rights under their property, and can't legally stop the mineral owners from coming onto their land to drill.

The filmmakers description:
Imagine discovering that you don't own the mineral rights under your land, and that an energy company plans to drill for natural gas two hundred feet from your front door. Imagine having little recourse, other than accepting an unregulated industry in your backyard. Split Estate maps a tragedy in the making, as citizens in the path of a new drilling boom in the Rocky Mountain West struggle against the erosion of their civil liberties, their communities and their health.
This movie gives you an up-close look at some of the ares that SkyTruth has been studying from above.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - 2nd Relief Attempt Fails

It's now Day 54 of the ongoing Montara oil spill off Western Australia, and the second attempt to intercept the damaged well and shut it down has failed. The next try should happen over the weekend. Third time's the charm - we hope.

At this point, using PTTEP's estimate of 400 barrels of oil spilled per day, at least 900 thousand gallons have been spilled into the Timor Sea since the blowout occurred on August 21. Using our estimate of 3,000 barrels per day, based on the known flow rates of nearby wells, nearly 7 million gallons have been spilled so far.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - 1st Relief Attempt Fails

Perth Now reports that the first attempt to shut down the uncontrolled spill of oil and gas from a damaged well on the Montara platform has failed. It's a highly challenging operation: drillers on a nearby rig that was brought in from Singapore, the West Triton, are attempting to intercept the damaged Montara well at a point more than 8,500' below the seafloor and pump enough heavy mud into it to stop the flow. It will take up to 4 days to make another pass at the well and try again.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Offshore Drilling: Spillustrations

SkyTruth is getting barraged by requests from people around the country who want to know what could happen if an incident comparable to the Montara / West Atlas oil spill happened off their coast. In response, we've generated a series of illustrations that superimpose the area of oil slicks, as shown on satellite images of the Timor Sea disaster, on various parts of the US including:
These illustrations are not predictive spill models - they don't take into account local winds, currents, shoreline configuration or bathymetry - but they do accurately portray what a Montara-sized oil slick would look like, as shown on some of the satellite images we've been collecting and analyzing for that ongoing event.

Illustration showing hypothetical Montara-sized oil spill off the Virginia coast.

The Montara spill is now in its 45th day, as efforts to drill a relief well continue. Using the oil company's estimate of 400 barrels per day, over 750 thousand gallons of oil have spilled since the blowout on August 21. Using an alternative estimate of 3,000 barrels per day that is based on the actual published flow rates of nearby oil wells, over 5 and a half million gallons may have been spilled so far.