Thursday, June 30, 2011

Oil Slicks in Gulf of Mexico

Another day, another spill in the Gulf. Or two.

Map showing locations of two recent NRC oil spill reports relative to Mississippi Delta, chronic leak at site of platform 23051, and BP / Deepwater Horizon spill. Pink dots are locations of active oil/gas platforms in Federal waters.
Yesterday's MODIS/Aqua satellite image shows a couple of small slicks in the Main Pass area, a region jam-packed with offshore oil and gas platforms and pipelines.  The two slicks we've outlined in yellow below appear to be closely associated with two recent National Response Center oil spill reports, one (#980916) submitted on June 27 and the other (#981157) on June 29.  The report on June 27 indicates the spill location (but not necessarily the source) as a manned oil/gas platform in Main Pass Block 299, installed in 1991 and operated by Freeport McMoRan Energy LLC.  (LLC...really?  Think about that for a moment.  This is a division of a multinational mining and energy conglomerate that, among other things, operates the massive Grasberg Pit in West Papua that is steadily smothering lowland rainforest with tailings.)  No amount spilled, or estimate of the size of the oil slick, is given in the report.  The slick is described as being dark brown, which indicates something thicker and more substantial than the "unknown sheen from unknown source" so frequently described in NRC reports.

Detail from NASA MODIS/Aqua satellite image taken June 29, 2011. Red pushpins mark locations of NRC spill reports on June 27 and June 29. Pink dots mark active oil/gas platforms in Federal waters. Scattered clouds and shadows at lower left. Strong sunglint on this portion of the image makes areas of smooth water (including oil slicks) appear very bright.
The possible slick seen on the June 29 MODIS image in that area covers 75 km2.  At 1 micron (one 1,000th of a millimeter) thick, that would be 19,800 gallons (a "medium" spill by Coast Guard definition).  But standard guidelines for estimating a slick's thickness from its appearance put a "dark brown" slick in the 50 micron range.  That would be a spill of 990,000 gallons (23,571 barrels), and a Clean Water Act fine of 26 to 101 million dollars. But somebody in the federal government needs to step up and actually start fining companies for these spills (our intern Michelle is looking into this enforcement question).  We think this is critical to improve offshore drilling safety:  a credible and consistent financial incentive for operators -- large and small -- to take better care of business, one of the keys to avoiding the next major spill.

Possible oil slicks delineated with yellow line.

The June 29 report describes a 125-gallon spill in Main Pass Block 313 creating a "silvery sheen" (very thin slick) of oil about 26,000' long x 2,600' wide drifting southeast from the source.  The report gives the spill location (again, not necessarily the source) as a platform operated by Chevron.  This roughly matches what we observe on yesterday's MODIS image: a possible slick that's about 9 miles long and 25 km2 in size, beginning about 3-1/2 miles southeast of the platform location.  Assuming the slick is 1 micron thick, the total amount of oil it contains should be closer to 6,600 gallons (157 barrels).

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Oil Slick at Platform 23051 Site, Gulf of Mexico

It's the Energizer Bunny of leaks: yesterday's MODIS/Terra satellite image of the Gulf shows a 10-mile-long oil slick emanating from the site of Taylor Energy's destroyed platform, where wells damaged by hurricane Ivan in 2004 have been leaking oil ever since:

Detail from NASA MODIS/Terra satellite image taken June 28, 2011. Red pushpin marks location of former Taylor Energy platform. Tip of Mississippi Delta at upper left; scattered clouds and shadows at right. Strong sunglint on this portion of the image makes areas of smooth water appear very bright.
Yellow measurement line indicates oil slick caused by chronic leak from damaged wells at former platform location.
We've now collected dozens of satellite images and air photos showing a persistent oil slick at this site, including this image from June 19 showing a slick at least 17 miles long, and possibly more than 30 miles long (a small patch of clouds interferes with the view):
Detail from NASA MODIS/Terra satellite image taken June 19, 2011. Red pushpin marks location of former Taylor Energy platform. Tip of Mississippi Delta at upper left.
Yellow measurement line indicates oil slick caused by chronic leak from damaged wells at former platform location.
So what's happening here to finally stop this chronic oil spill? One of our readers just noted that there is no evidence of vessel activity at the site now.  According to the latest Diamond Offshore rig status report (dated June 14) the rig that's been working to plug the leaking wells at this site - the Ocean Saratoga - is scheduled to be pulled off the site by mid-July and sent to a 5-year job elsewhere in the Gulf. If there isn't any tracking data indicating vessel activity at the site, maybe they've already pulled out - without completing the job, based on the 10-mile-long slick we observed yesterday.

According to their rig status report, no other Diamond Offshore rig is assigned to the site. Maybe another drilling company is under contract to bring in a rig to continue the plugging operation.

This plugging operation is obviously a low-priority job. Possibly because, as far as we can tell at this point, no fines are being levied against the operator for the oil being continuously spilled into the Gulf at this site -- so they have no financial incentive to pay higher rates to get the plugging job done quickly. Our summer intern Michelle is working to help us determine who to blame for setting up this moral hazard: the Coast Guard? BOEMRE? EPA? Department of Justice?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Marcellus Shale Drilling and Chesapeake Bay Water Quality

Following up on Ben's post Tuesday - onshore oil and natural gas drilling can impact water in different ways:

1) Water withdrawals - drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) require large quantities of water. The high-volume slickwater fracking performed on Marcellus Shale gas wells can use up to 3 million gallons of water per frack.  It's not unusual for a single well to be fracked several times; and for a single drilling location to host several wells reaching out in all directions.  Water can be brought in by tanker truckor pipeline.  The closer the water source, the cheaper it is for the operator, so often they request permission from state and local authorities to take water directly from nearby streams.  As an example, XTO Energy (a division of Exxon) is seeking permission to withdraw up to 250,000 gallons per day from Oquaga Creek in upstate New York, a small trout stream annually stocked by the state.  My father-in-law and his fly-fishing buddies know this stream personally and think this withdrawal would destroy it as a trout stream.  Pennsylvania has already issued many water withdrawal permits for drilling and other activity (map).

2) Water disposal - the fluids used for drilling and fracking contain a wide variety of potential contaminants.  Produced water -- water originally held in the target geologic formation that is produced along with the gas -- can contain elevated levels of dissolved salts and, in some cases, low level radioactivity.  Spills of these fluids, and leaks in the plastic liners in fluid-reserve pits on the drillsite, can contaminate surface streams and near-surface groundwater.  Standard municipal wastewater treatment facilities are not equipped to remove some of the contaminants in these fluids, so specialized treatment facilities must be built to process this wastewater before it can be released to streams and rivers. 

3) Groundwater contamination - when it comes to drilling safety, the devil is in the most mundane of details. Cement, for example. Cement pumped into the bottom of the well, and sealing off the fracked intervals, is the main line of defense to prevent gas and fluids from moving where you don't want them to go.  Poor cementing was the proximal cause of the disastrous Montara blowout and spill off Australia in 2009, and the fatal BP / Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.  A recent Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that problems with cementing are alarmingly common. Casing failures, corrosion, poor drilling practices and other factors can also allow unwanted fluid migration.  The end result: a growing roster of cases where drilling activity is related to the contamination of drinking water supplies across the nation.

By the way, thanks to careless use of drilling terminology by some environmentalists and politicians, a big semantic argument has broken out, focused on whether the hydraulic fracturing procedure itself is the cause of contamination. More on this topic later, but we think this argument misses the mark: fracking is the repeated pumping of fluid into the well at extremely high pressures designed to break open rock, so any weakness or flaw in the well design or construction (like a poor cement job, for example, or cheap imported steel casing) is much more likely to lead to failure in a fracked well, than it would in one of Dad's old-fashioned unfracked wells.

By The Way, Part Deux: National energy legislation in 2005 exempted the drilling industry from disclosing the chemicals they use in fracking, making it difficult for homeowners to monitor the quality of their drinking water without spending a fortune on water analysis. ShaleTest is a new outfit that is trying to help homeowners with this. 

4) Stormwater runoff contamination of surface waters - this is the unglamorous way that streams, ponds, wetlands and rivers could be impacted by drilling activity.  A drill site, after all, is essentially a concentrated construction zone several acres in size: trees and brush are cleared, the land is graded flat, gravel is trucked in and spread out to create a space for all the trucks, equipment, supplies and people needed to drill, frack and complete a well.  Access roads are built; pipelines and other utilities are installed.  All of these elements of drilling infrastructure are potential sources of muddy runoff when it rains, changing the physical and chemical properties of streams with impacts on the aquatic life and downstream water users. The construction industry in general is subject to Clean Water Act rules to control stormwater runoff, but - yes, you guessed it - the drilling industry is exempt from those rules.

Ben's work is focused on investigating if this potential for runoff really is a measurable problem.  If so, it could complicate the decades-long, multimillion dollar effort to restore water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.  This excellent map, created by SkyTruth volunteer Dorn Moore of Greenspace GIS, shows that over one-third of the Bay's watershed overlaps with the Marcellus Shale gas play.Assuming one drilling location per square mile, that could mean as many as 25,000 drilling sites will be built in the Bay watershed (even more as other geologic formations, like the Utica and Ithaca Shales, are targeted for drilling).

If these sites cause measurable degradation of water quality, that could be very bad news for the Bay.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oil Slick Near Venice, Louisiana - Federal Officials Stumped?

We hope not, since we've provided plain-as-day photos of a leaking platform not far from where the slick off Venice, Louisiana was first reported.  Maybe the Venice slick had another as-yet unidentified source, but the slick encountered by our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners from a well likely owned by Saratoga Resources, Inc. clearly indicates a problem at this precise location:  29°31'29.40"N /  89°19'60.00"W.

What's not clear: what - if any - action will be taken by state and federal officials to address that spill?

Oily sheen spotted from Coast Guard aircraft near Venice, Louisiana on June 9, 2011. US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann, courtesy gCaptain.

At any rate, the Coast Guard has declared the cleanup of the slick off Venice "complete,"  even though no oil was actually cleaned up - apparently it all dissipated before coming ashore. 

We'll let you know when as learn more about this unresolved incident.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Oil Slick Near Venice, Louisiana - Who Owns the Well?

Thanks to reader bdstroid for commenting on yesterday's post that Lobo Operating, Inc. of Covington, LA is, well, no longer operating.  So the question is - who owns the well that is apparently leaking in the June 10 photographs taken by Gulf Restoration Network?  Some updated findings:

Using the Louisiana state data site, SONRIS, we've learned that the well in question has, in name at least, changed hands three times. According to SONRIS it was drilled in 2004 by Amerada Hess; bought in September 2009 by The Harvest Group, LLC of Covington, LA; then taken over in 2008 by Lobo Operating, Inc. of Covington (apparently the successor corporation to The Harvest Group). Dial Lobo's phone number now and you get a voicemail greeting for Saratoga Resources, Inc.  Saratoga is the successor to (or purchaser of) Lobo and Harvest; all three entities filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009.

Saratoga emerged from Chapter 11 a year later. We don't know for sure if Saratoga owns the apparently leaking well, but it seems likely.  This LLC shell-game with offshore drilling sure can be confusing -- we call it Responsible Party Whack-a-Mole.  And it sure does make us uneasy to learn about small, bankrupt companies responsible for operating and maintaining offshore oil and gas wells, when other livelihoods are put at risk from both chronic pollution and catastrophic spills.

We hope the Coast Guard is using the info we publish, but we haven't had any direct contact with them. Gulf Restoration Network has provided info directly to the Coast Guard for this leak, which as far as we can tell has not been officially reported to the NRC by the responsible party as required by law.

We're continuing to look for better imagery of the area, and the Gulf Monitoring Consortium will continue to coordinate our efforts to investigate and publish information about pollution incidents like this one.

Marcellus Shale Hydrofracking Surface Water Impacts

Hi guys, I'm Ben Pelto and I am interning with Skytruth this summer. I am working on our surface water impacts of Marcellus Shale drilling project. Below is a map of Pennsylvania with all of the permits and spuds (where drilling has started) for 2011 only. That is one heck of a lot of action by the drilling industry in only five months. There is no chance for the DEP, EPA, SRBC or grassroots organizations to keep pace with this level of activity. The DEP had their budget slashed this year and so will clearly not be able to meet this threat to the waters of PA before it is too late. Our mission is to start a monitoring project of surface water and perpetuate it. We want to be able to track the impacts of drilling on the streams of Pennsylvania.
Our project on Marcellus Shale drilling is focused on surface water impacts. The plan is to go in the field to some new sites and sample for conductivity and turbidity. These two parameters will indicate to what extent drilling has effected the stream health. Turbidity is a measure of the cloudiness of the water, and these new drill sites are built on stripped land. If the proper steps are not taken then the sediment from the sites can make its way into the streams and choke them with sediment. This is detrimental to aquatic health and fish populations. Conductivity is a measure of the ions dissolved in water. High levels could be attained in local streams should produced water seep into or be dumped into streams. The clearing of sites with improper buffer zones could also lead to much sediment and ions contained in the soil being washed into adjacent streams. Our goal is to sample some new locations and determine if any are being negatively affected by fracking procedures.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Oil Slick Near Venice, Louisiana - Operator Identified?

According to SONRIS, the operator of the platform in Breton Sound that appears to be leaking in the photos taken on June 10 is Lobo Operating, Inc based in Covington, Louisiana. But the scientists from National Wildlife Federation who sampled an oil slick about 7 miles to the southeast on June 8 tell us their sample was thick, black crude oil.  Lobo's well is reported to produce natural gas and gas condensate, which can be considered a very "light" oil; and the slick visible in the air photos looks relatively thin.

So although it appears there is a problem at the Lobo platform, it's still not clear if that is the source of the slick that prompted the news reports and was sampled by NWF on June 8.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Oil Slick Near Venice, Louisiana - Leaking Well Identified!

We've identified the leaking well photographed yesterday, using the map-viewer at SONRIS.  It was drilled in 2004 and produces natural gas and liquid gas condensate, probably what's causing the visible slick. The API number is 17726205660000.  We haven't found a way to look up the well operator in SONRIS, but with that API number - a unique ID number given to every oil and gas well in the US - state officials and the Coast Guard should have everything they need to run this down.

Is this the well responsible for the oil slicks reported near Venice since June 8?  I think that's likely, but can't rule out the possibility of another leak or spill in the area.  There's a lot going on in that part of the Gulf.  Routine satellite monitoring would sure be helpful.

But to my Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners, I'd like to say: job well done, folks!

Oil Slick Near Venice, Louisiana - Leaking Platform Location

 Actively leaking platform in Breton Sound Block 33 on June 10, 2011. Gulf Monitoring Consortium photograph courtesy SouthWings / Gulf Restoration Network. Full-resolution version here.

Last night Jonathan Henderson of Gulf Restoration Network texted me the location coordinates where he shot the photos yesterday of an actively leaking platform in Breton Sound that may be the source of the oil slick reported over the past few days.  Here's the location he provided:

29°31'29.40"N /  89°19'60.00"W

That's in the northwest corner of Breton Sound Block 33, very close to the border with Main Pass Block 26, in Louisiana state waters.  We're working to identify the structure and operator. It's about 7 miles northwest of the oil sample taken by National Wildlife Federation on June 8 that tested positive as relatively fresh South Louisiana crude oil. It's certainly possible that an oil slick could drift that far from the source, but it's also possible there is another source for the Venice oil slick. Better satellite imagery (radar, please!) could help clarify this situation.  We're looking for additional imagery of this area.

Here's an updated map showing all of the relevant locations we've been discussing in this blog (as always, click for a bigger version):

Friday, June 10, 2011

Oil Slick Near Venice, Louisiana - Photos Identify Possible Source

Photo of oil slick and platform in Breton Sound, taken during Gulf Monitoring Consortium overflight on June 10, 2011. Photo courtesy SouthWings / Gulf Restoration Network.

Here is a small gallery of photos of the slick near Venice taken during today's Gulf Monitoring Consortium overflight.  This definitely looks like an oil slick, and it looks like our friends at SouthWings and Gulf Restoration Network may have pinned down the source - this slick is obviously emanating from a small, unmanned platform.  We're trying to get the GPS coordinates from the flight so we can nail down the platform ID.  Stay tuned.

Oil Slick Reported Near Venice, Louisiana - Update

We're homing in.  It looks like news reports placing the slick "about 2 miles southeast of Baptiste Collette [Bayou]" were a bit misleading.  NRC report 978985 filed on June 8 contains that same description, but also a precise latitude/longitude location that actually places it 2 miles north-northeast of the mouth of the bayou, about 4 miles west-southwest of the southern tip of the Chandeleur Islands (Breton National Wildlife Refuge).

The oil-slick sample collected by National Wildlife Federation scientists, that shows the oil to be relatively fresh crude not related to the BP spill, was taken on June 8 from a point just two-tenths of a mile away, so we're pretty confident they actually sampled the slick that has been in the news:
What's not clear yet: Where is the cleanup activity taking place?  And what was the source of this spill?  The area is chock-full of old platforms and pipelines; some of the pipelines are shown in yellow on the map above. The NRC spill reports in the area don't shed much light on a possible source, if you take at face value the spill amounts in those reports (by the way, Anglo-Suisse:  how's that investigation coming along?)

Our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners, SouthWings, conducted an overflight of the area this afternoon with a passenger from Gulf Restoration Network, using the coordinates we provided.  They observed a small slick in the same location as NRC report 978985 and NWF sample. GRN will be blogging and posting the pics shortly.

Even more interesting: they encountered a TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) zone over the area.  The SouthWings pilot was permitted to enter, and tells us that unmanned aerial drones (UAVs) were operating in the area.  Cool!  Hopefully the Coast Guard is using those drones, which means they are really upping their game  and bringing some high-tech tools into oil spill investigation.

We hope that's the case.  If so: polluters beware.  It's getting a lot tougher to hide what you do.

Oil Slick Reported Near Venice, Louisiana

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium has been investigating a reported spill near Venice, Louisiana that's been in the news since June 8. The latest: oil collected by scientists for National Wildlife Federation and analyzed by Dr. Ed Overton at Lousiana State University reveals that this is not old, remobilized oil from the BP spill last year; it is relatively fresh crude oil that fits the geochemical profile of "South Louisiana Crude" (not the same as BP's Macondo oil). The Coast Guard is also investigating, and has a cleanup contractor onsite.

But the source of this oil remains a mystery.  MODIS satellite images for the past week haven't revealed anything useful yet.

At SkyTruth we're systematically mapping the official pollution reports collected by the National Response Center for the entire US, onshore and off (polluters are required by law to report their pollution immediately to the NRC; passers-by are encouraged, but not required, to report any signs of pollution). This map shows all of the NRC reports in the area since May 29.  You can use the report numbers to look them up on the NRC's website.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wallow Fire, Arizona - It's a Beast

The Wallow wildfire in Arizona near the New Mexico border has grown to the 2nd-largest wildfire in the state's history. Now there is concern that it could cause some power blackouts (ABC story and videos).

Here's what this thing looks like on a NASA MODIS satellite image taken yesterday at 1:25 pm local time. The AZ/NM border is shown as a pale vertical line. Click for a larger view:

And here's detail of the active fire zone from the same image, with the border removed:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Oil Slick Reported near Venice, Lousiana

We just saw this news story (video) about an oil slick possibly several miles long sighted off Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana.  According to Parish President Billy Nungesser the slick is located about 2 miles east-southeast of Baptiste Collette, across the Mississippi River from Venice.  That would put it in Buras Bayou, on the edge of the Delta National Wildlife Refuge where a Chevron/BP pipeline spilled 18,000 gallons of crude oil in early April 2010, causing widespread contamination.  There is no word yet on the possible source of the latest oil slick.

Two pollution reports were submitted to the National Response Center at 10:17 am on June 6 (report #978778) and again at 10:58 am yesterday morning (report #978893) indicating small amounts of oil spilled from a platform operated by Helis Oil and Gas Company about 20 miles to the northwest. We don't know if this is the source of the slick being reported today near Venice. Yesterday afternoon's low-resolution MODIS satellite imagery doesn't indicate anything unusual in that area.  We'll keep looking.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sediment Plume in Gulf of Mexico - Big Dead Zone Ahead?

Flood waters are working their way through the lower Mississippi River system. On May 14 the Army Corps of Engineers began opening floodgates at the Morganza Spillway to divert some of the floodwater out of the Mississippi and into the adjacent Atchafalaya River to ease pressure on the downstream levees protecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Ten days later they began closing the gates again as the flood level on the Mississippi crested and began to recede at Morganza. 

NASA/MODIS satellite image taken June 2, 2011, showing sediment plume from Atchafalaya River filling coastal bays and nearshore areas along the Louisiana coast, west of the Mississippi Delta.
This diversion of sediment-laden river water intentionally flooded parts of the much less densely populated Atchafalaya Basin.  It also has shifted a lot of the sediment and other gunk that normally would flow down the Mississippi and be released in deep Gulf of Mexico waters at the mouths of the Mississippi Delta, to the shallow coastal waters of western Louisiana and eastern Texas. This plume of runoff from all the farms, cities and sewers of the nation's midsection is responsible for the annual appearance of an oxygen-deficient "dead zone" in the central Gulf.  There are concerns now that this year's dead zone will be larger than ever, and will have more of a direct impact on the coastal waters that support an important fishing industry working to recover from last year's catastrophic oil spill.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Eyes in the Sky - Pollution Monitoring

Repost from Glitnir76's blog:
Eyes in the Sky

I’ve recently begun volunteering at SkyTruth, a non-profit group that “promotes environmental awareness and protection with remote sensing and digital mapping technology.”

Specifically, I’m helping gather data about oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico that have occurred over the last decade.  To do this, I’m looking at satellite images from NASA and comparing them to National Response Center (NRC) reports that have been filed to see if the quantity of material reported matches what we see in the images.  My workhorse application is Google Earth so I can make notes, measure the slicks, and analyze the images against our data maps throughout the Gulf region.

An example image I’m working with:

I really didn’t know much about either the process of drilling in the Gulf or the bureaucracy involved.  But working with John (the President) has been an eye-opening experience and quite rewarding as I manage to find good images to analyze.  (There are a limited number of months when the sun is at the right angle to detect slicks, and clouds often obscure the area I need to examine).

I’ve just finished the 2009 images, and I’ll post more soon about what I’ve learned from my analysis so far.