Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hurricane Katrina - 5 Years Ago Today

Marking a sad anniversary today: it's been 5 years since Hurricane Katrina churned through the Gulf as a Category 5 monster, pounded communities in Louisiana and Mississippi, and overwhelmed New Orleans. The human tragedy was appalling. The environmental news, at first downplayed by government officials (and to this day misrepresented by some offshore drilling proponents), wasn't very good either.

MODIS satellite image shows Hurricane Katrina hitting offshore oil and gas fields with Category 5 strength on August 28, 2005.

Just a few weeks later, Hurricane Rita ripped through the Gulf. Together these two storms wreaked havoc on coastal and offshore oil and gas facilities. According to that agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, and the US Coast Guard, over 1oo offshore platforms were totally destroyed; more than 450 breaks were reported in seafloor pipelines; and, all told, more than 9 million gallons of oil spilled from damaged offshore and coastal infrastructure.

Map showing offshore oil and gas infrastructure (pipelines in green) directly affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August-September 2005.

Six weeks after Rita, that tally was greatly increased when the barge T/B DBL 152 struck the unmarked ruins of an offshore oil platform that Rita had demolished. The barge was loaded with more than 5 million gallons of "slurry oil," a heavy residual product of the gasoline-refining process that is often used for fuel oil. The crippled barge became grounded in shallow water, then capsized, dumping almost 2 million gallons that settled on the seafloor. Only 5% of this oil was recovered.

Friday, August 27, 2010

BP / Gulf Oil Spill - Large Underwater Plume of Oil Described, Still Much Unaccounted For

Just back from a week's vacation and look at what we missed:

Scientists at Woods Hole announced their discovery and detailed mapping of a large underwater plume of finely dispersed oil from the BP spill. Measuring 35 km long x 2 km wide x 200 m thick, it was about 900 meters (3,000 feet) below the surface and drifting slowly southwest from the leaking Macondo well. The team was tracking this plume in late June, up until Hurricane Alex chased them back to shore. The researchers said it appeared to be breaking down and dissipating much more slowly than expected, probably because of the very low water temperature at that depth.

The combined concentration of several key indicator hydrocarbons (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and total xylenes) in the plume was at least 50 micrograms (millionths of a gram) per liter. That's very dilute, although it may have some toxic effects.

How much of the "missing" oil was in that plume? The scientists calculated that about 6-7% of the 2.2-2.6 million gallon daily flow rate from the well was represented in this plume during the 10 days they were measuring it. They conclude that
the total amount of petroleum hydrocarbons in the plume and the full extent of possible risks to marine biota remain uncertain.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

BP / Gulf Spill - 172 Million Gallons of Oil, 11.6 Billion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas

Scientists vehemently disagreed with the brief report issued by the federal government on August 4 that some interpreted as evidence that most of the oil spilled from BP's Macondo well was...gone. Researchers at the University of Georgia issued their own report yesterday, claiming that nearly 80% of the oil spilled remains in the ecosystem, subject to evaporation and biodegradation but at unknown rates, meanwhile doing damage in a variety of different ways.

And natural gas, mostly methane, was released in great quantities during this spill. Some scientists have estimated that as much as 40% of the flow from the Macondo well was natural gas, mostly methane (CH4) that dissolved rather than floating to the surface and escaping into the atmosphere. At 80 cubic meters of methane per barrel of oil, with a total spill of 4.1 million barrels (172 million gallons) of oil, we calculate 328 million cubic meters - 11.6 billion cubic feet (BCF) - of methane were injected into the Gulf.

Researchers from Texas A&M University, the University of Georgia, and the University of California – Santa Barbara have measured levels of dissolved methane thousands of times above normal, thousands of feet below the surface. The microbial degradation of methane will consume oxygen from the water, possibly slowing biodegradation of the oil, particularly at deeper levels, and leading to the formation of additional oxygen-deficient dead zones devoid of fish, marine mammals, and much of the typical Gulf fauna.


Dr. Ian MacDonald of Florida State University will testify to Congress about this and the lingering impacts of this spill tomorrow morning. You can download his testimony here. A preview:

The Unified Command has made no mention of this gas, but it should not be ignored. Because the discharge occurred at 5000 ft depth, all the material rising toward the surface or drifting in subsurface plumes is in the ocean for hours, days, or months and can have a significant chemical and biological effect. So the hydrocarbon gas meets the OPA definition of "discharged." The hydrocarbon gas is highly soluble in the deep, cold waters of the Gulf. Based on previous measurements, much of the gas released at depth will dissolve before it reaches the surface. Microbes degrading this material will compete for nutrients (like oxygen) with those attacking oil and will significantly affect the overall degradation process held to be so important by NOAA and DOI. Fish exposed to concentrated methane have exhibited mortality and neurological damage. The hydrocarbon gas was a major component of the total pollution load discharged from the BP well.

Cotter Uranium Superfund Site, Colorado - Staying Shuttered

We just learned that the Cotter Corporation has decided not to re-open it's uranium mill near Canon City. While it was operating this plant contaminated soil and groundwater so severely that in 1984 it was designated a Superfund toxic-waste site. Cleanup to remediate high levels of uranium and molybdenum has lagged, and SkyTruth images show that parts of the site actually overlap with areas that FEMA has designated high-risk flood zones -- some leading right into adjacent residential neighborghoods.

Keeping the mill shuttered may be a relief for some local residents, but it comes with a catch: Cotter has notified the state that it will no longer conduct routine monitoring for buildup of dangerous, heavier-than-air radon gas, a breakdown product of the uranium. And government officials are wondering, if Cotter runs out of cash, who will foot the bill for the complex and expensive cleanup to protect public health.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Coal Mining: SkyTruth Work Helps Link Mountaintop Removal and Water Pollution

It's official: strip-mining for coal using the massively disruptive process known as "mountaintop removal" definitively pollutes streams and rivers.

Duke University researchers just announced the results of a new study (published July 2012 in the Environmental Science and Technology Journal) that quantitatively links the amount of mining activity within West Virginia watersheds to levels of key pollutants downstream, including sulfates, selenium and other metals with known environmental and human health effects. This is significant (groundbreaking, actually) because, as one researcher puts it, the results
directly link changes in the stream water chemistry to the area of the watersheds that has been disturbed by mining activities.
How did the team determine the area of the watersheds that was impacted by mining? Glad you asked: SkyTruth's work provided a key component of this study. Our satellite image analysis of surface mining impacts throughout Appalachia from the 1970s through the 2000s gave researchers the spatial and temporal information they needed to correlate mining activity with water-quality measurements.

Now we have a predictive tool, a way to forecast the water-quality impacts of proposed new mining activity. This may mean mining companies need to figure out ways to better protect water quality if they hope to get new mining permits approved. That's good news for aquatic creatures, and great news for those of us humans living downstream who drink this water every day.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

BP / Gulf Oil Spill - Curb Your Enthusiasm, Part 3

Yesterday the federal government weighed in on a complex topic: what happened to all the oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's blown-out Macondo well? The joint report by NOAA and USGS lead some, including White House energy adviser and former EPA director Carol Browner, to make the claim that most of the oil that spewed into the Gulf this summer -- an estimated total of 206 million gallons -- is gone. Collected, burned, biodegraded or otherwise destroyed. Scientists have raised serious objections.

OK, let's take a look at the actual report. According to the "Oil Budget Chart" above (Figure 1 in their report), NOAA estimates only 25% of the oil has been diverted, collected or otherwise definitively destroyed. The remaining 75% is still on or below the water's surface or buried in marsh and beach sediments (26%); or it evaporated or dissolved (25%), was naturally dispersed (16%), or was chemically dispersed (8%).

Evaporation probably has moved a lot of the hydrocarbon out of the water and into the air. But "dissolved" and "dispersed" are not the same thing as "gone." (Try drinking a nice tall glass of tea with a few spoonfuls of salt dissolved in it, and you'll get what I mean.) NOAA is assuming rapid biodegradation of the dispersed and dissolved oil, which may be reasonable in relative terms -- i.e., biodegradation in the hot Gulf is quicker than biodegradation in the frigid Arctic. But with no data provided on the actual rates of biodegradation, we don't have any way of knowing just how much of the oil has naturally biodegraded at this point. We also don't know what the intermediate breakdown products are, and what they do in the environment, and how long they last. Pesky but very important questions that can't be answered quickly, or without a dedicated research effort that hopefully (??) is underway.

Total up the categories NOAA describes as "currently being degraded naturally" and you get 50% of the spilled amount, a whopping 103 million gallons (2.45 million barrels) of oil. That's almost 10 times the size of the official Exxon Valdez spill.

Take the report at face value, agreeing that "only" 26% of the oil remains active in the environment, and you're still talking about 50+ million gallons, almost 5 Exxon Valdez spills.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill - Static Kill Deemed a Success

Die, dragon, die!

The "static kill" operation has apparently succeeded, and cement is now being pumped into BP's deadly Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Work will continue on the nearest relief well to ultimately intercept Macondo at depth and complete the job, pumping cement in from the bottom of the failed well in a "bottom kill" operation that should provide a redundant measure of assurance that the Macondo dragon is well and truly dead.

When that finally happens it will be time to breathe a sigh of relief, and to think again about those who were killed and hurt, and their families and friends.

Then take a good hard look at exactly what happened, what the short-term damages are, and what the long-term consequences - environmental and economic - will be from this massive oil spill, the biggest unintentional oil spill in history. And hopefully learn the lessons, act on the harsh education we've all just been given (again), and get a lot smarter about how we produce and use energy in the future.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

BP / Gulf Oil Spill - Static Kill Begins

Just heard that the "static kill" operation - pumping mud, possibly followed by cement, into the Macondo well via one of the valves on the blowout preventer - is now under way.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill - How Much Oil Underwater?

The new spill-rate estimate provided by government scientists yesterday got us thinking:
  1. How much of the oil, spilled 5,000' down at the seafloor from BP's Macondo well, never floated up to the surface, or sank back below the surface after being sprayed with dispersant?
  2. How much oil may remain in Gulf waters, possibly thousands of feet below the surface?
  3. What are the impacts of that "unseen" oil, and how long will it have toxic effects?
Time for some math: SkyTruth's estimate of the spill rate (26,500 barrels per day), calculated way back at the end of April with help from Dr. Ian MacDonald at Florida State University, was based entirely on the oil we could see and measure at the ocean's surface (8.9 million gallons, based on a Coast Guard map of the oil slick for April 28, 8 days into the spill).

Our spill-rate estimate is 43% of the 62,000 barrels-per-day rate that scientists now claim for the early days of the spill. But surely some of the "missing oil" in our estimate was consumed in the fire that raged on the Deepwater Horizon rig before it sank on April 22; so let's optimistically say 2 days worth of flow from the well was totally burned up, bumping SkyTruth's estimated daily flow rate up to 35,317 barrels per day - 57% of the new government rate. No oil was being diverted from the well at that time, and skimming operations probably weren't collecting much at that point either, but dispersants were being used to break up the slick.

This suggests that at least 43% of the oil that leaked from the well remained under water or was driven back under water by dispersants, out of sight to satellite images and Coast Guard observers. Given a total spill of 172.2 million gallons, if we extrapolate from that first week we can conclude that at least 43% of that oil - 74 million gallons - may still be lurking beneath the surface in the Gulf.

That's our attempt at answering the first question. As for the second question, biodegradation should be steadily breaking down this oil, but we don't know at what rate, or what the byproducts of that breakdown might be. And we have no idea how to answer the third question.

Getting these answers will require a concerted, sustained, publicly transparent science effort. So we can be better prepared the next time something like this happens, and make better-informed plans for how we use our nation's ocean resources in the future.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill - How Big? Just Got Bigger. Again.

Well, we warned ya. That estimate didn't last very long.

Yesterday the government released new estimates of how much oil was spewing on a daily basis from BP's Macondo well into the Gulf of Mexico, based on much better data and hi-def video. It's worse than we thought: initially the well was gushing oil at a rate of 2.6 million gallons (62,000 barrels) per day. At the time, BP and the Coast Guard claimed the spill rate was 62 times smaller than that -- 42,000 gallons (1,000 barrels) per day.

Eight days into the spill, NOAA got involved and raised the estimate to 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) per day. BP grudgingly accepted this, and it remained the official estimate of the spill rate - more than 10 times too small, we now know - until May 27, more than a month after the disaster began.

Working with BP as a consultant back in the 1990s, I interacted with some of the smartest geologists and reservoir engineers I've known. How could they get this so very wrong, knowing the bottomhole pressure of the well, the size of the reservoir, and the relative percentage of oil to natural gas? And how could the US Coast Guard - the agency that responds to oil and hazardous materials spills of all kinds and sizes - not know that they were dealing with a spill 10 times larger than the official estimate?

As the well leaked oil and natural gas, pressure in the reservoir below gradually lessened, so the flow rate of oil declined to 2.2 million gallons (53,000 barrels) per day. The well was capped on July 15, totally shutting off the flow of oil and gas.

Bottom line: using these new government numbers, and the estimate in a previous Washington Post article that about 33.6 million gallons were diverted from the leaking well and never entered the Gulf, we come up with a total spill of 172.2 million gallons (4.1 million barrels) - more than 15 times the official size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Michigan Pipeline Spill - A Warning Shot

Turns out the pipeline that failed in Michigan last week, spilling a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River that's still threatening to reach Lake Michigan, was installed in 1969. Still no word on why it failed but corrosion is a constant battle for pipeline operators like Enbridge.

Like who?

Most oil, gas, and refined-products pipeline, onshore and offshore, is owned and operated by companies you've probably never heard of (without the brand name or deep pockets of a company like BP or Exxon). Enbridge is a Canadian company that claims to operate the world's largest pipeline network - 15,000 miles of pipe in the US and Canada. They also have a rap sheet of recent, major spills and fatal incidents (although we don't know if their record is any worse than most other pipeline operators).

Active oil and gas pipelines in the US Gulf of Mexico. Data from US Minerals Management Service (downloaded March 25, 2009).

There are about 25,000 miles of active oil and gas pipeline on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico, connecting 3600 platforms and tens of thousands of wells to coastal storage, processing and distribution facilities. Much of this infrastructure is getting old - drilling began offshore in the Gulf in the 1940s. Are pipeline operators doing a better job inspecting, maintaining and replacing the pipes offshore than they are onshore?

Keeping an independent eye on this vast, aging infrastructure is yet another reason we think Gulf-wide satellite monitoring should be a routine activity, not a service limited only to emergencies like the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill.

Barataria Bay, Louisiana - Abandoned Well Blowout

A few days ago we mentioned this small oil spill in the coastal wetlands of the Gulf that is unrelated to the big BP / Deepwater Horizon spill: on July 27, 2010, an abandoned well in Barataria Bay, Louisiana was hit by a barge and blew out. It's been spewing a 100-foot-high geyser of natural gas and light crude oil since then, and the Coast Guard has reported that it may not be plugged for another week.

TSX radar satellite image of Barataria Bay blowout and spill, August 1, 2010. Image courtesy CSTARS.

This image from Germany's TerraSAR-X radar satellite was acquired at 7:08 am Central time on August 1, and shows the oil being spilled (black areas) from this ongoing incident. We got the well location (yellow dot) from NOAA's Incident News report for this spill.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill - How Big?

The Macondo well is still tightly capped; the "static kill" effort to shut it down by pumping mud, then cement, into the well through the containment cap may begin as soon as tonight. This would be followed up by a "bottom kill" procedure, hopefully in August, that would use a relief well to pump more cement into the well at a point about 13,000' below the seafloor.

So, folks are asking - just how big was this spill?

Big enough to - at one time or another - cover 68,000 square miles of Gulf waters with oil slick or sheen, based on our ongoing analysis of satellite images. But that's just the part we could see at the surface. Lots of oil remained in the water column, beneath the surface, out of sight on the satellite images we've been able to acquire.

The Washington Post published a calculation on July 29 (article and useful graphic) that as much as 218 million gallons (5.2 million barrels) leaked out of the well over the duration of the spill from April 20 - July 15. That assumes the government team's high-end leak rate estimate of 2.52 million gallons (60,000 barrels) per day for 87 days. Subtracting 33.6 million gallons (800,000 barrels) the Coast Guard and BP claim to have kept out of the water -- by siphoning oil directly from the leaking well -- yields a high-end spill estimate of 184.4 million gallons (4.4 million barrels).

SkyTruth's estimate on May 1 that the well was gushing at a rate of at least 1.1 million gallons (26,500 barrels) per day turned out to be on the low end of the later scientific estimates made by the government-assembled Flow Rate Technical Group. Our conservative number generates a total flow of 96.8 million gallons (2.3 million barrels) from the leaking well over 87 days. Subtracting the 33.6 million gallons supposedly diverted from the leaking well - we have no way to confirm that number - yields a low-end total spill estimate of 63.2 million gallons (1.5 million barrels) directly into Gulf waters.

How does this compare with our previous sad benchmark, the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989? The official estimate -- a number that, we should note, is disputed as being far too small -- is that 11 million gallons were spilled when the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

That would make the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf anywhere from 6 to 17 times as large as the official
Exxon Valdez spill. But don't lock these numbers in just yet: they may change as the investigation proceeds and new information is brought to light in coming months.

We'll have to work hard, and stay on guard, to make sure this is one sorry new record that will never be broken.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Twitter - No Joy

Just a note to our Twitter followers - we've been unable to send any new tweets for 3 days, and haven't heard back from their tech support folks. We're trying to figure out the problem, but it is vexing...

UPDATE 8/2/10 9am - still can't access my home page on Twitter. No word from tech support. But hey, you get what you pay for, right?