Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bizarre NRC Report of the Day

Okay, we're going to file this under beyond ridiculous. In fact, this may be the first in a series of just unbelievable reports pulled from the NRC files that we're going to blog about.

Today's report comes from NRC Report number 834291. This is a report that was received at the National Response Center back on May 3, 2007.

The caller is reporting that during an overflight, a spill from a downed platform from Hurricane Katrina was discovered. The spill was found just off Grand Isle, LA and the responsible party is listed as BP America. The released material is said to be crude oil. The amount of crude oil released into the water? Are you ready for it? ONE DROP. Yes, apparently, with bionic eyes from his aircraft, the caller was able to see that ONE DROP of crude oil was spilled from a downed platform. This ONE DROP of crude oil created a sheen that was reported to be 80 feet long by 2 feet wide.

Let's compare that report against one that was called in on August 17, 2004. That report was also called in listing BP as the responsible party. The August 17 report, number 732083, states that a loose plug on a drain deck caused a release of material on a platform. The material spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from this spill was hydraulic oil. The amount spilled during THAT incident was TEN DROPS. Did they count them as they went in? And the size of the spill from those ten drops of hydraulic oil? 10 feet long by 10 feet wide.

Was that one drop of crude oil a magic drop? Was it a drop the size of a cow? How do you have one drop of oil create an 80 foot sheen, yet a spill of 10 drops only causes a 10 foot sheen?

Inconsistent reporting? Party of one? Your table is ready.

Stay tuned, there are plenty of inconsistencies, and we're more than happy to bring 'em to your attention in the days and weeks to come.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Coal Mining - Our Featured Gallery This Week.

This week we're going to turn the focus over to Coal Mining, both here in the U.S. and abroad. In our Flickr galleries, we've got some spectacular shots of the landscapes of different regions, and how the landscapes have changed. Here is our set featuring coal mining in Hunter Valley, Australia:

And check out these shots from our Coal Storage, Seward, Alaska set:

To see the full size images and many more beautiful images like these, go check out our Flickr galleries and don't forget to visit our Facebook page and tell us what you think!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Weekend in Alabama

The weekend of April 15-17, John was invited down to Mobile, Alabama for the SouthWings Fly-In, a conference attended by many of the volunteer pilots who are affiliated with one of SkyTruth's Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners. John gave a presentation on Saturday, and then Sunday, had the privilege of going out into the Mobile-Tensaw Delta on a swamp tour with world-renowned naturalist E.O. Wilson hosted by another Gulf Monitoring Consortium member, the Mobile Baykeeper. John was very excited at the opportunity to go out and get his feet muddy (in loaned boots - thanks Ben!) alongside someone he's admired and respected for many years. And to see alligators, dolphins, snakes and turtles. Did we mention alligators?

E.O. Wilson is the foremost expert on ants, and in this video from the Mobile Press-Register, you can see John smiling like a kid at Christmas as he looks on while Dr. Wilson examines and points out the species of ants climbing not only on a branch that John pulled out of the swamp but all over his hands as well. He's had a lot of practice with this:

Friday, April 22, 2011

BP / Deepwater Horizon Oil & Gas Disaster - What's Changed?

The Deepwater Horizon's final hours, April 22, 2010. Photo courtesy New York Times. More here.

One year ago today, after an explosion and fire that killed 11 workers and injured 17 others, a technological marvel -- the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible drill rig -- slipped beneath the waves and sank in 5,000' of water, 40 miles offshore in the deep Gulf of Mexico. The rig had drifted and burned out of control for nearly two days following the catastrophic blowout of BP's ill-fated oil and gas well, named Macondo, that triggered the blast at 10pm on April 20.

Oil-burning operations in the Gulf, June 2010. Photo courtesy FSU / Dr. Oscar Garcia-Pineda

We didn't know it at the time, but this was the start of what would become the world's worst accidental oil spill. Before the well was finally brought under control and capped on July 15, it had gushed 172 million gallons of crude oil, and billions of cubic feet of natural gas, into the cold, dark waters at the bottom of the sea.

The Gulf's resiliency has proven some of the gloomiest of doom-sayers wrong; this is a naturally "oily" ecosystem, with hundreds of known natural oil and gas seeps in deep water, and a microbial defense system that reminds me of the white blood cells in our own immune systems. The Gulf hasn't died, but it almost certainly has changed; the jury is still out on the short- and long-term environmental damage this spill has wrought. Independent scientists and those involved in the official Natural Resources Damage Assessment process suggest it may be years before the full account can be written.

Likewise, the full impact of the spill on other culturally and economically important industries in the Gulf region and beyond, like seafood and hospitality, may take a few years to understand. So will the human health effects of the spill.

Meanwhile BP itself is once again booking strong profits, moving forward with ambitious new drilling plans, and appears to be thriving. Polls show the public strongly favors more offshore drilling. The federal government is issuing new permits to drill in deep water, based largely on their faith in two new well-containment devices that would take weeks to assemble and deploy in the next emergency, allowing tens of millions of gallons to hit the water before these untested devices even arrive on the scene. I'd like to say we've got totally retooled oil spill cleanup plans and capabilities to deal with the inevitable next spill, but sadly that is not the case. Apparently the industry and our government have decided this is good enough for the people of the Gulf:

Cleanup workers wiping oil from marsh grass. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Derek W. Richburg.

As time goes by it's looking less likely that the well-researched recommendations of the National Oil Spill Commission are going to be implemented, meaning offshore drilling will continue to be a high-risk activity. Why is this? I'll turn it over now to a couple of writers who sum it up far more eloquently than I could. David Jenkins of Republicans for Environmental Protection blasts the inaction by Congress in the wake of this historic disaster in The Spill Washington Forgot. And Carl Cannon puts the politics and policy in context in this compelling analysis, Political Partisanship and Earth Day.

Now for the good news: We've made real progress here at SkyTruth, forming a space-water- air SWAT team with SouthWings and Waterkeeper Alliance. The Gulf Monitoring Consortium leverages the skills and expertise of our organizations to help us efficiently and effectively evaluate, investigate and document oil pollution incidents in the Gulf of Mexico. We'll keep you updated as the Consortium grows, builds new information tools, responds to future incidents, and publishes our findings.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

SkyTruth Making News in Early 2011

Over the course of the past few months, SkyTruth has been in the news quite a bit. Just yesterday, SkyTruth was mentioned in the Huffington Post. And on April 15th, SkyTruth was mentioned in this Washington Post article written just before the anniversary of the BP Deepwater/Horizon tragedy.

Check out our inclusion in the New York Times Green Blog, and an article written by Dr. Ian MacDonald in the December 2010 edition of Significance Magazine features a shout out to SkyTruth.

The Alabama Press Register featured an interview with SkyTruth President, John Amos in February, and the San Antonio Express News included SkyTruth in this piece that they wrote on February 18.

To see more of our work featured in various media outlets, you can visit our Media page on our SkyTruth website. Stay tuned, we're looking forward to making a difference as the year goes on!

Remember when we said our first balloon launch was ALMOST a success?

Well, let's just say that's not the most right we've ever been. We are happy to report that we actually caught some really cool images when the camera wasn't spinning like a top up there in the atmosphere. Have a look.

In this picture, Paul and John are preparing to fill the balloon with helium with the help of Dr. Ed Snyder of Shepherd University. Without Dr. Snyder and the good folks at Shepherd, this wouldn't be possible.

How's this for advertising our product?

Looks like a successful launch:

And we have liftoff!

In this shot, you can see what the top of Paul's hat really looks like:

Say cheese, Paul!

Outside the 24 hour room of the Scarborough Library. Surprisingly good shots follow:

And coming in for a landing:

We're hoping to catch some even better shots when we take the balloon camera out again on Thursday, April 21 on the Campus of Shepherd University as the Shepherd Environmental Organization celebrates Earth Day. Come on out and see us around lunchtime! We'll be the ones with the big white balloon telling everyone to look up and smile for the camera.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Join us on Thursday for Another Balloon Camera Launch at Shepherd University

If you missed it the first time around, here's your chance to see us as we launch our SkyTruth Balloon Camera again this week! Please join us on the campus of Shepherd University as we once again send the balloon up and see what cool images we can gather as the Shepherd Environmental Organization celebrates Earth Day this Thursday, April 21 around noon. We'll be located between the Byrd Science Building and the Scarborough Library, so come by around lunchtime and say hello and smile for the camera!

No, you're not seeing things sideways, this is one of the shots that our balloon mounted camera captured as it rose in the air above the library.

Another really cool image we caught during our first balloon launch.

That launch was relatively stealth, no pomp, no circumstance because we had no idea if it would work. Now we know. So provided the weather holds out for us, we're going up, up and away on Thursday, April 21! See you there.

Announcing: the Gulf Monitoring Consortium

Today, SkyTruth, SouthWings, and Waterkeeper Alliance launch the Gulf Monitoring Consortium: an innovative partnership that is systematically monitoring oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico with satellite images and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and on-the-water observation and sampling. This unique effort led by three non-profit organizations will collect and publish images, observations and sampling data of the Gulf of Mexico to rapidly respond to reported and suspected oil pollution incidents.

Read the full news release.

At SkyTruth we're always looking for ways to get reliable and timely ground truth information to accompany our satellite images; it helps the images tell a fuller story. Working with SouthWings, we can get pilots and observers up in the air to investigate spill reports and corroborate indications of pollution on satellite imagery. Waterkeeper can mobilize folks on the coast and the water, in coordination with satellite overpasses and aerial overflights, to get up-close documentation and samples of suspected pollution.

This newly formed alliance will actively bear witness to current, ongoing, and future oil pollution to fill the information gap exposed since the tragic BP / Deepwater Horizon explosion one year ago. During the BP spill SkyTruth, SouthWings and the Waterkeeper Alliance detected and documented an unrelated, chronic leak from a platform destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. And you probably recall that for several days following the oil spill that came ashore March 20 in Grand Isle, Louisiana, government officials provided little information to the public on the source or severity of the pollution. Concerned citizens, NGOs and the media scrambled to figure out what was happening, and requested help from our organizations. And the more we look into it, the more we find that official government pollution reports, in many cases submitted by the polluters themselves, are internally inconsistent and dont match what we observe on satellite images.
Damaging rumors and speculation take hold in the absence of good information, leading people in Gulf communities still reeling from the BP disaster to fear the worst whenever oil comes ashore: another major offshore spill. That’s why we’ve formed this alliance with SouthWings and Waterkeeper, to systematically and efficiently evaluate reported or suspected pollution incidents in a coordinated approach from space, from the air, and on the water, so we can fill this critical information gap.

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium is a rapid response alliance that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information by space, air and water in order to investigate and expose oil pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico. We're actively seeking partner organizations to join us in this effort.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fracking - Safe or Not?

There has been a lot of buzz lately about stimulating production from gas and oil wells using the relatively new technique of hydraulic fracturing -- fracking, fraccing or fracing for short. Most of the new natural gas wells drilled in this country rely on fracking to yield economically attractive quantities of gas, especially in the booming shale-gas drilling plays unfolding around the country (Barnett, Marcellus, Haynesville, Fayetteville). Shale-oil drilling (not to be confused with oil shale) is the second wave that's building fast (Niobrara, Bakken, Eagle Ford). These so-called "unconventional" gas and oil targets were bypassed for years until advances in horizontal drilling and fracking provided the key to unlocking these significant gas resources. Now they are becoming the main focus of drilling activity in North America, affecting many residential and even urban areas where drilling was once considered inconceivable.

Natural-gas wells on public land in the Jonah Field of western Wyoming. Fracking is routine for most gas wells drilled now in the U.S. Photo courtesy EcoFlight.

Recent highly publicized drinking water contamination incidents linked to gas drilling, and the popularity of the documentary film Gasland (can you light your tap water on fire?), have raised the public profile of this game-changing drilling process. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying the safety of fracking. Congress is holding two hearings this week, in the House and in the Senate, to try to get some answers. No doubt many of the problems stem from the mundane details of drilling that can plague any complex construction job: bad well design and construction, ill-advised shortcuts, and - the leader of the pack - poor cementing.

Industry wants us to believe that if we just fix those problems then fracking can be done safely. Disclosing the chemicals used in fracking at each drilling site, so homeowners know what to test their water for, would be a good start.

Tanks for handling fracking fluids at a new Marcellus Shale natural-gas well site in northeast Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy J. Henry Fair.

But we wonder if hydraulic fracturing is intrinsically unsafe, even if the well design and construction is totally by-the-book. Here's why: fracking works by levering open fractures in the rock, and propping those fractures open with sand (or synthetic microbeads). Tectonically "open" fractures, that are aligned parallel to the regional stress field, are most susceptible to being pried open. If a frack job intersects pre-existing open faults or other natural fractures in the bedrock -- especially vertical fractures that can span multiple geologic formations above and below the target zone -- how do we ensure that fracking fluids don't migrate in unpredictable ways via these natural flowpaths?

Smart drillers don't want to lose all their fracking fluid into a single fracture or fault: it's expensive, a waste of time, and doesn't accomplish what they want. But avoiding those features requires doing borehole imaging studies on the well to identify and map them, which also costs time and money. It's not hard to imagine a driller weighing the expense of borehole imaging surveys vs. the risk of performing an ineffective frack job.

We know just enough about this to raise a few questions, and would appreciate some real experts weighing in by commenting on this post:
  • What do companies do to avoid the undesired result of fluids migrating out of the fracking target zone?
  • What actions to avoid this result are required, and how are they verified by regulators?
  • What actions are voluntary, and how commonly are they used?
Thanks in advance for sharing your expertise on this important issue!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Offshore Drilling, Onshore Spilling

In case anyone doubts there is any connection between offshore oil and gas drilling, and risks of spills from onshore oil facilities, the helpful officials at BOEMRE have just made that connection crystal clear. Yesterday, BOEMRE awarded the 9th deepwater drilling permit since the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill to Murphy Oil Corporation to resume work on a well in the Green Canyon area of the Gulf of Mexico.

Over one million gallons of oil spilled from a Murphy Oil storage tank damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Photo source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

If the name sounds familiar, it should: in 2005 a Murphy oil storage tank damaged by hurricane Katrina spilled one million gallons of crude oil into a residential neighborhood in Chalmette, Louisiana; the biggest single spill of the 9 million gallons estimated by the US Coast Guard that spilled from storm-damaged facilities onshore and offshore. Some of this oil came from Gulf production; some may have been imported. But it's clear that offshore producers need to have onshore facilities, and these facilities continue to be just as vulnerable to storm damage now as they were six years ago. And hurricanes are just a fact of life along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

Crude oil from failed Murphy Oil storage tank impacted 1,700 homes on Chalmette and Meraux, Louisiana. Photo source: Wikimedia

Folks in Virginia might want to think about that as their politicians lead the charge to expand offshore drilling in US waters.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Gas Plume from Mt. Oyama, Japan

The MODIS sensor on NASA's Terra satellite captured another spectacular clear image of Japan yesterday (April 6). The small version (2 kilometer detail) gives a nice overview; for a closer look try the full-resolution version (250 meter detail).

There's still a good bit of snow up in the mountains. No obvious signs of the earthquake and tsunami damage on this low-resolution imagery, and the turbidity that we observed along the northeastern coast in the first few days following the quake seems to have dissipated or settled out.

Sharp-eyed viewers will note a pale blue plume blowing to the southeast from the island of Miyakejima. This is apparently a plume of sulfuric gases that have been emanating from Mount Oyama, an active volcano on the island, since the last series of eruptions began back in 2000:

Strong aftershocks continue to shake this traumatized region, including a 7.4-magnitude quake yesterday that prompted a brief tsunami warning.

Balloon Camera Launch Take 2: Success (almost).

Yesterday, on the campus of Shepherd University, SkyTruth had it's first (almost) successful launch of our balloon camera. You may recall we attempted to launch our balloon last month but were unsuccessful due to nasty weather conditions. However, with blue skies and a beautiful breeze, we were able to get our balloon off the ground yesterday. The good news? The balloon launch went off without a hitch and it's strong enough to lift the camera that is attached. The bad news? The camera swings like a drunken sailor. So while we have pictures, we may not be able to figure out exactly what's IN them. We've got some tweaking to do, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Transocean Donates Bonuses to Victim's Families

We're happy to report today that executives at Transocean announced they will donate their 2010 safety bonuses "to the families of the 11 workers killed in the April 2010 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico." This will add $250,000 to the Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund fund that Transocean had already established to support the victims' families.

The safety bonuses only amount to 25% of the total bonuses paid to Transocean executives this year, so they'll still have plenty of walkin' around money. But this is a positive outcome, close to what we called for a couple of days ago.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gulf of Mexico - Deepwater Development

All active oil and gas production platforms (pink dots) and pipelines (yellow) in the Gulf of Mexico

We just ran across an interesting pair of tables on the BOEMRE website listing all of the deepwater oil & gas wells (276) and production platforms (46) in the Gulf of Mexico. Thought we'd put them on a map to see the distribution. In this instance, "deepwater" means a water depth greater than 1,000 feet:

Deepwater oil and gas wells (yellow dots)

Deepwater oil and gas production platforms (pink dots)

Sharp-eyed viewers might note that there are several pink dots in deepwater on the "all platforms" map at the top of this post that don't appear in the "deepwater only" map above. Those extra dots mark the locations of subsea manifolds - structures on the seafloor that are connected by gathering pipelines to the nearest platform. This is a common development approach for deepwater fields, where massive (and very costly) platforms are designed to function as regional collection and processing "hubs."

By the way, the rumpled appearance of the Gulf seafloor where most of this deepwater drilling is taking place is a consequence of the salt-dome geology. Learn more about the Gulf of Mexico here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

BP Hoping to Resume Drilling in Gulf of Mexico This Summer

BP is in discussions with federal officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) to get permits to resume deepwater drilling in its existing oil fields in the Gulf, perhaps as soon as this summer. The timing might be unpredictable but federal approval seems inevitable since BP holds many leases in the Gulf and is one of the top global players in offshore oil production. Besides, we want them to survive so they can pay all the bills they owe from the world's worst accidental oil spill.

I hope BP takes this opportunity to become the safest player in the Gulf, and to lead the oil industry - in cooperation with state and federal regulators - to go well beyond what is or will be required by the letter of the law. BOEMRE's response has been downright disappointing, issuing new deepwater drilling permits that rely on old pre-2010 oil spill response plans that failed us miserably last summer, and continuing to place faith in a last line of defense - the blowout preventer - that is now recognized to be fundamentally unreliable.

BP could choose to voluntarily set a much higher bar for this industry by demonstrating to their shareholders and to regulators that they are determined to be the gold standard in safety -- even if that means sacrificing some short-term profitability to invest in continuous long-term improvements in energy efficiency, drilling procedures, spill response, and spill remediation.

Transocean: Here's an Idea - Give Your Bonuses to Charity

At this point our award for Worst Bedside Manner in 2011 has to go to Transocean. The year is young, and they may yet be unseated, but that's hard to imagine. By now you've probably heard that, in their annual proxy statement sent to shareholders, Transocean declared 2010 "the best year ever" for safety at the company.

If the name rings a bell, it should. Transocean owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon drill rig that exploded, burned and sank last April, killing 11 workers and injuring another 17. And kicking off what became the world's worst accidental oil spill, possibly due in part to actions taken on board the rig that doomed it to go down, plundering the pockets of fishermen, hotel and restaurant workers, and countless businesspeople throughout the Gulf region and beyond.

Statistically speaking, they may be correct that 2010 was their best year for safety: this is a big multinational company operating a global fleet of more than 130 drilling rigs. But the optics sure are appalling. The company has apologized for their "insensitive" word choice, but makes no apology for the huge cash bonuses awarded to the CEO and to other execs. All the while continuing to be less than fully cooperative with investigators looking into the causes of the spill.

We have a suggestion: let's make this apology more substantial than just a pro-forma statement from an anonymous PR person. Transocean execs, why not donate all of your 2010 bonus money to vetted charities that are helping Gulf-area residents get back on their feet.

What do you say?