Friday, January 22, 2010

Good News for Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

Too special to drill: panoramic satellite view looking south across the Badger-Two Medicine area. Click for larger version.

A big tip o' my hat today to five energy companies that voluntarily relinquished 8 oil and gas leases covering nearly 30,000 acres of the spectacular Badger-Two Medicine area of Lewis and Clark National forest on Montana's Rocky Mountain Front. There are no producing oil or gas wells on any of these leases.

Occidental Petroleum, Williams Cos., Rosewood Resources, XTO Energy and BP received no compensation for giving up their rights to drill in these areas, which they had originally leased from the federal government in 1982. The lands are now permanently protected from oil and gas leasing under a 2006 federal law authored by Montana Senator Max Baucus.

Take a look at what has been returned to the American public - if you like to hike, camp, climb, hunt or fish, plan a trip to the Front to celebrate:

Protected from drilling: Badger Creek and Badger-Two Medicine area of the Rocky Mountain Front, Montana. Photo by Tony Bynum.

Conservationists, ranchers, Native Americans and sportsmen's groups - including The Wilderness Society, Blackfeet Nation, Trout Unlimited, Montana Wilderness Association and Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front - have worked for years to return all of the leased areas along the Front to public control.
29 leases covering another 40,000 acres in the Badger-Two Medicine area are still in private hands. None of these areas are producing any oil or gas.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - Questions Remain

Permanent plugs have successfully been installed and pressure-tested in the notorious H1 well that blew out on August 21, 2009, in the Timor Sea and spewed oil and gas for 71 days. Some information is now trickling out as the Australian government investigates the causes and consequences of the Montara / West Atlas blowout and ten-week oil spill. News accounts have focused on the drilling contractor's apparent failure to install a basic piece of safety equipment called a corrosion cap. This seems like a serious mistake for a major offshore drilling contractor like Seadrill. But we're not yet sure that the lack of this cap could, on its own, cause the well to blow out.

Upstream's coverage provides the most technical detail. Apparently there was an existing weakness in the well due to a poor cementing job. Ho hum, cement...but as they say, the devil is in the bone up on well drilling (especially the section on cementing) before you go much further:
the source of the flow was in the 244 millimetre casing and the most likely cause of that was a channel in the cement in the shoe track casing
This article also raises a lot of questions. It states that in August PTTEP determined no corrosion cap had been installed when the H1 well was suspended in March. Yet on August 20, "the corrosion cap was removed" to "clean corroded casing threads," the cap "was not reinstalled," and the well blew out the next day:
  • Does this mean that Seadrill actually had installed a pressure cap on the H1 well?
    • If so, when exactly did that happen?
  • Was the removal of that cap to "clean corroded casing threads" unusual, or is that a common thing to do?
    • If common, what are the safety procedures during this operation, and were they being followed?
  • Was Seadrill (or some other contractor?) doing that work on the H1 well at the same time they were actively drilling a new well at the platform, as initially reported?
    • If so, is that allowed, and does it conform with industry standard practice?
  • What has been done to suspend or abandon the well that Seadrill had been drilling when the H1 blowout occurred?
  • What will be done with the other suspended wells and the Montara platform structure?
  • Why was the bulk of the fire centered on the West Atlas rig, rather than on the Montara platform? Check out the pictures and spectacular video.
    • This suggests to me that the well that was being drilled is the one that ignited, rather than the H1 well. If so, why?
Wonky stuff, for sure. But it's important to get all of these questions asked, and answered, before the government closes the books on this investigation, so we can be sure we know what really happened.

Meanwhile, another tropical cyclone is making a Montara drive-by. This time it's Magda, a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 60-70 knots. On January 21 at 0:50 hours Zulu time, this MODIS Terra satellite image showed the eye of Magda to be about 186 km southwest of the Montara oil platform. The storm is moving almost directly south, and should not pose a threat to operations as crews are now assessing the structural integrity of the fire-damaged platform.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti Earthquake - Oil Spill

We've done some followup work on the oil spill seen on post-quake satellite imagery of western Port-au-Prince. Frankly, this is the least of their worries: the spill looks significant but based on the shape and distribution of the slicks we interpret this to be a short-lived episode, not an ongoing spill like the recent Timor Sea event off Australia.

We've identified a couple of sites where oil storage tanks appear to have been damaged and leaked; it's not clear if these tanks are the source of the oil slicks. See for yourself - we've posted everything in a gallery. You can also access the high-resolution Geoeye satellite images via Google Earth through Google's website or by downloading their KML file.

Haiti Earthquake - Before / After Comparisons, Oil Spill, Collaborative Map Effort

Geoeye has also published high-resolution post-quake imagery of Port-au-Prince. The images were taken on the morning of January 13, 2010. In Google Earth, you can toggle between those images and pre-quake hi-res images that were shot in March 2008, allowing direct comparison and rapid visual assessment of the damage.

SkyTruth looked at the area around the cathedral, and did this quick visual analysis and mapping of damaged and destroyed buildings in the vicinity:

Pre-quake image, March 2008 (cathedral is large cross-shaped building at center). Click image for big version.

Post-quake image, January 13, 2010. Cathedral roof has collapsed, several adjacent buildings also visibly damaged. Click image for big version.

Visual identification of damaged structures (orange) based on image comparison. Click image for big version.

There's also a large oil slick on the west side of the city near an area of oil storage tanks (we found out about this while watching The Weather Channel late last night). Some of the tanks appear to be damaged, and have spilled oil into the containment areas that surround them. It's possible some of this oil overtopped or breached the containment berms and flowed into the sea. It's also possible that one or more oil pipelines along the shore was broken during the quake. From the configuration of the slicks, it appears the leaks were sudden, substantial, and short-lived:

Oil slick on west side of Port-au-Prince, January 13, 2010. Click image for big version.

Google has also established a public collaborative Haiti mapping project, asking folks who know Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area to help populate the map with important and helpful features. I assume these would be the identification of specific buildings (especially public buildings like schools, hospitals and clinics, theaters or other gathering spots) and anything else you think might be helpful to responders. Go here if you want to share your knowledge of the area to help this massive relief effort.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Earthquake Disaster in Haiti: Free Hi-Res Satellite Images

The magnitude of the catastrophe in Haiti is hard to grasp. We're heartened that Digital Globe is making high-resolution satellite images available for free until January 28. You've got to be using standard GIS software (from ESRI, MapInfo, or Autodesk) to get the data.

Earthquake damage to cathedral (center) and nearby structures in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

For those without GIS software, you can still view post-quake images showing the damage at DigitalGlobe's gallery. They've also done a simple visual damage assessment, which you can download as a PDF file here.

High-resolution images are useful for gross damage assessment and for logistics. We hope relief organizations take advantage of this to facilitate their operations, and we hope some of the other satellite image vendors follow suit. It's going to be a long haul, and the work of many nations, to help Haiti recover from this disaster.

UPDATE 1/15/10: DigitalGlobe is now making their imagery available to Google Earth users as a KML file. Click here to access the KML. I've just tried it - the KML is pretty rough, but I expect it will be improved.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Timor Sea Drilling Spill - Montara Well is Permanently Plugged

Good news out of Australia - the well that blew out on August 21, spilled crude oil into the ocean and natural gas into the air for ten weeks, then caught fire and burned out of control for 2 days when the leak was finally stopped - has been permanently plugged and capped, according to a report from Upstream Online today. That's almost five months since the blowout occurred. No doubt the plugging operation was made a bit more complicated due to fire damage sustained by the Montara oil platform:

No word yet on what will be done with the other wells that had already been drilled at the Montara platform. Will they too be permanently plugged, capped and abandoned? Or will the operator, PTTEP Australasia, attempt to put them into production?

Read all about the Timor Sea blowout and spill on this blog, and see photos and satellite images of the spill in SkyTruth's gallery.

Monday, January 11, 2010

North Slope - Dirty Snow?

More Alaska stuff today: we thought you'd like to see some winter-time imagery of the oil drilling and processing infrastructure up on the North Slope. The otherwise featureless plain of snow and ice is marked by brown halos surrounding many of the roads and facilities. Check out all the images here.

This appears to be caused by traffic or diesel-powered equipment, stirring up clouds of dust and/or depositing soot. If so, it's an interesting illustration of a recently recognized problem: this "dirty snow" absorbs more heat from the sun, turbocharging global warming and accelerating climate change from the Rockies to the Arctic.

Fort Knox Gold Mine, Alaska

SkyTruth just posted a small gallery of images showing growth of the Fort Knox open-pit gold mine, north of Fairbanks, from 2003 to 2007 (thanks to Google Earth for adding historical imagery). The mine opened in 1994, and in 2007 received approval from the state of Alaska to expand their operation to include a cyanide heap-leach process.

By 2007 the footprint of this mine was about 3,000 acres.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Coal Dust Threat in Seward, Alaska

That's right: the home of pristine fiords and glaciers, verdant forests, stunning mountain scenery, cruise-ship-happy tourists...has a problem with coal dust. A relatively small amount of coal is mined in Alaska right now, but a lot of it ends up in big stockpiles in the coastal city of Seward, awaiting shipment to Asia and South America. Alaska can be a pretty blustery place, so dust blows off the coal piles and into town, and into the lungs of local residents. It's not a good thing to be inhaling, so environmentalists just filed suit to force corrective actions.

We've created a gallery of images to give you a virtual tour of Seward and these massive storage piles, using high-resolution imagery in Google Earth that was acquired in March 2007. At that time the twin storage piles were a quarter of a mile long and covered almost 8 acres.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

SkyTruth is Tweeting

Happy new year, everyone! New in 2010 - SkyTruth has launched a Twitter feed. Check out our latest tweets to the right.

We'll use this to post quick updates on our work, breaking news on environmental incidents as we become aware of them, useful stuff about remote sensing, and links to interesting, cool and beautiful images. We just can't get enough of that stuff. And neither can you, so please follow us onTwitter!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Human Error Redux

We closed out 2009 with another stunning reminder that human error still poses a major risk for oil spills and other environmentally significant accidents: a high-tech escort tug, the Pathfinder, hit the very same well-mapped reef in Prince William Sound that the Exxon Valdez ran up against twenty years ago. Unlike the earlier tanker accident, which spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil and crippled some Alaska fisheries and communities, this one only resulted in a minor spill of 100 gallons or so of fuel oil. But this latest accident is disturbing because the Pathfinder's job is to escort laden oil tankers safely through these ecologically important Alaskan waters.

If the safety escort hits a notorious reef, then just how safe is this operation? As noted in this December 30 article in the Alaska Dispatch:
None of the fancy technology aboard the 136-foot tug Pathfinder -- not the satellite positioning system, not the radar, not the depth finder capable of sounding depth warnings -- prevented a Dec. 23 collision with Bligh Reef, and Alaskans monitoring oil tanker safety in Prince William Sound say that ought to serve as a warning for everyone concerned about the northern environment.
Even the Coast Guard seems to have been asleep at the wheel:
Not only did the navigation systems aboard the tug somehow fail to alert the crew to danger, Jones said, so did the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Center in Valdez, which is supposed to track tankers and tugs using the shipping lane into and out of Valdez. The center has radar watching the Sound, and the tankers and tugs are supposed to carry "position and identification reporting equipment" to enable the traffic center to track them in much the way air-traffic controllers follow the movement of airplanes fitted with transponders. And yet the Pathfinder somehow strayed off course even farther than the Exxon Valdez. The latter struck bottom in about 35 feet of water. The former had to get so close to the center of the reef that its keel hit the rocks in 17 feet.
So how can this kind of problem continue to happen?
"It's strictly human error," Stephens said, "being where you're not supposed to be. It's usually human error. There are lessons to be learned from this. The more eyes the better."
That's a problem that's particularly relevant for offshore oil production and transportation, because, as we've seen so recently with the Montara blowout and spill off Australia, the consequences can be severe. One final thought from Alaska:
...the money spent on prevention could save a fortune on potential clean-up costs later. Prevention of an oil better than any possible clean-up effort.