Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bohai Bay Oil Spills, China - Radar Satellite Image, June 11, 2011

We just got a satellite radar image of Bohai Bay taken June 11, 2011.  It shows what appear to be oil slicks emanating from two platforms in the vicinity of the Penglai 19-3 offshore oil field operated by ConocoPhillips.  This fits the story so far, that apparently unrelated spills with different causes occurred at two of the new platforms there. Radar is a powerful tool for detecting oil pollution at sea; it's very sensitive to the "roughness" of the ocean surface. But not every slick - a flat patch of water - is an oil slick. Some slicks are showing calm water caused by slack offshore wind, heavy rain, thin ice, or natural surfactants from algae, phytoplankton, even large schools of fish.

So radar image interpretation benefits from long experience.  Our experience leads us to be confident in the analysis provided below. We'll keep checking to see if there are ongoing problems in this field.
Envisat ASAR radar satellite image of Bohai Bay taken on June 11, 2011. Image courtesy of ESA - European Space Agency
Detail from ASAR image identifying cluster of platforms assumed to be in the Penglai 19-3 offshore oil field; and likely oil slicks. Image courtesy of ESA - European Space Agency

Monday, July 25, 2011

Marcellus Shale Hydrofracking Surface Water Impacts

SkyTruth’s Marcellus fracking monitoring project to a big step forward with our recent (first week of July) trip into the field. Being on the ground observing the sites, the pipelines, road work and traffic that all revolve around the massive drilling industry presence in the region was an eye-opening experience. In studying the rapid development of natural gas development in Pennsylvania one has to wonder at the speed. The feeling is half one of admiration and fear. The admiration stems from the vigor, speed and manpower which the industry is putting to the extraction of natural gas. The fear is that so much is being done so quickly with so little oversight. It is not easy to play catch-up, but for the agencies responsible, the DEP and EPA, catch-up will be all they can do. Once a problem is found it can be dealt with, but unless someone is out in the streams monitoring them, then identifying the true cause is not easy.

The activity is hot in PA this year (a spud is a location where drilling operations have begun):

With plans to head out for further field sampling in the final weekend of July, we will revisit the same sites again to measure the comprehensive water quality the Wysox and Meshoppen watersheds. We will use an approach where we are sampling throughout the watershed to establish norms for what to expect and better pinpoint any changes in vital signs, be it visual or quantitative (conductivity levels, turbidity readings). We aim to use our data in part to gain knowledge in order to accurately construct 'load maps' for watersheds in PA. A load map is intended to reflect the number of drill sites or permits per square mile in a watershed.

Below it can be seen that many watersheds have high density of drilling scheduled to come soon:

In western PA the watersheds of Little Connoquenessing, and Tenmile Creek show high levels. The permits used to make the map are from the past six months. Generally once a permit is obtained drilling starts with in 3 to 6 months, so a high density of new permits means locals can expect a frenzy of fracking in the near future. In northern PA the watersheds of Larry's Creek, Wysox Creek and East Branch Wyalusing have high permits levels.

The load approach looks to be a valuable one, and according to research done by scientists of the National Academy and a University of Pennsylvania grad student, the impact of drilling seems to be tied to the density of drilling in a specific area (a watershed in our case). It appears that there is a 'threshold point' where it becomes environmentally degrading regardless to the care of the drilling companies.In the watersheds in which we visited, it seemed that individual drill pads looked fine, if not a scar on the land, but once we were in the air (courtesy of LightHawk) the sheer amount of activity was gut-wrenching.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

SkyTruth Alerts - Try It!

Ever wonder what's going on in the environment around your home, your school, your favorite vacation spot? Us too: the world is a big place, and it takes a LOT of satellite images to cover it all. Here at SkyTruth we scour the infosphere for hints telling us where to look, and when. Over the years we've accumulated a collection of information sources that we use to decide which satellite images to analyze, and then we use this blog to report our findings and publish our images. We've been working on a system to easily share those sources with our partners, and now we're ready to share it with everyone.

SkyTruth Alerts

Today we are launching a new service on our website called SkyTruth Alerts where we publish environmental incident reports, as we get (and produce) them. We are starting off the service with reports collected from three sources - focused heavily on oil and gas drilling and related activities in the US. The sources are reported oil and hazardous materials spills from the National Response Center, pollution response and investigation reports from NOAA's Incident News, and incident analyses published on our own SkyTruth blog. We will add more information sources over coming weeks, and extend our focus to include gas drilling and fracking in the Marcellus Shale.

How it Works

The system works by displaying on a map or in Google Earth the most recent incident reports from all sources for whatever region you are interested in. You can browse through the list of incidents geographically on the map, or chronologically in a list. Each incident report identifies the source of the report, the location, and details about the incident. Incident reports are pulled automatically from the various sources several times per day and updated immediately on the website. A visitor to the site can type in the name of a city or a street address and go directly to that location to see the recent incidents that have been reported nearby.

Automatic Update Notifications

Of course, no one wants to have to keep returning to a website every day just to see if anything new has been posted, which is why we offer a subscription system that delivers updates within your personally selected geographic area via RSS feed, or straight to your email (you'll get one "daily digest" message per day).

So give it a try to get informed about pollution incidents happening in the places you care most about. And please let us know what you like, what you don't, what you wish you could do with the Alerts. We will continually work to improve this system, so your feedback is very important!

Friday, July 15, 2011

BP Spill Stopped One Year Ago Today - 5,000 Spills Since Then

July 15, 2010 was a day of relief for many - even for folks up here in West Virginia - after 2-1/2 months watching helplessly as oil and gas billowed relentlessly into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's runaway Macondo well. On that day one year ago, the final valve was carefully closed on an improvised "capping stack" that did the job after a string of heartbreaking failures. By that time an estimated 172 million gallons of oil had spewed directly into the Gulf, vastly exceeding the Exxon Valdez tanker spill of 1989 -- making it the nation's worst oil spill, and the world's worst accidental spill.
Photo from "spill cam" showing oil flow shut off at last on July 15, 2010
After cumulatively covering an area the size of Oklahoma, the massive oil slicks on the Gulf's surface began to dissipate almost immediately under the steady assault of evaporation, wind and wave action, biodegradation, photolysis, and cleanup efforts. We last observed significant oil slicks on satellite images taken July 28. But unknown amounts of oil and chemical dispersant lingered beneath the ocean's surface, out of sight, with an uncertain fate and as-yet untallied environmental consequences.  What is clear is that this spill caused significant economic damage to the Gulf seafood and tourism industries, upsetting the lives and livelihoods of people as far away as Virginia. And oil from the spill continues to wash ashore along the Gulf coast.

Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass any new laws governing offshore drilling safety.  In fact, they are going backwards by reducing funding for government inspections and oversight -- despite the fact that the oil industry itself requested more funding for BOEMRE, the agency that manages offshore drilling.

Other frustrations?  The lack of progress in creating a national oil spill cleanup capability that has a fighting chance against the next major spill; the continued reliance on chemical dispersants as an effective cleanup tool, despite evidence suggesting they may do more harm than good; our serendipitous discovery of a chronic, 7-years-and-counting leak that is continually polluting the Gulf; the regular occurrence of "mystery spills" that never get resolved; the laughable results of a system that naively hopes polluters will accurately report their spills; the lack of consistent fines for polluters, a moral hazard that encourages sloppy operations and risk taking, all but ensuring another major disaster.

Oh yeah, and the 5,100 new oil and other hazardous materials spills in the Gulf region reported to the National Response Center since July 15, 2010.  Here are the 3,000 reports that have enough usable location information for us to pinpoint them on a map:
NRC oil and hazardous materials spill reports, July 15, 2010 - July 15, 2011
The inevitable conclusion?  Concerned individuals and citizen's groups, like our Gulf Monitoring Consortium, have to take it upon themselves to investigate, understand, and publicize what's really going on with pollution and offshore drilling. You can help us by submitting your observations and photos to our Gulf Oil Spill Tracker site. And next week we'll unveil the SkyTruth Alerts system, a continually updated interactive map of reported pollution incidents nationwide, onshore and off.

Ongoing Leak at Platform 23051 Site - Anybody Home?

A quick update on the chronic leak we've been following at the former site of an oil platform reportedly destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.  RigData reports that the semisubmersible drilling rig that has been intermittently working to plug the leaking wells at this site, the Ocean Saratoga, has been towed away to work on a short-term drilling job elsewhere:
Ocean Saratoga has moved to Green Canyon Block 50 for a short-term well with Nexen Petroleum U.S.A., Inc. on a sublet from Taylor Energy Company, LLC. The work will last for around 20 days, which will conclude Taylor’s contract time on the rig. Upon completion of the work, the rig will go into shore for its five-year survey, which will take 45 days.
So the question is: who is working to plug the continuing leaks at this site?  The most recent overflight on July 1 shows an oil slick but no rig at the site, indicating that the work is not finished:
Photo of oil slick at Platform 23051 location, taken on July 1, 2011 by Bonny Schumaker / Wings of Care

That raises another question: is anyone being fined for this years-long, continual pollution of the Gulf of Mexico? Federal authorities claim the wells are leaking at an average rate of about 14 gallons per day (although satellite evidence suggests a much greater leak rate).  Hurricane Ivan made landfall on September 16, 2004, so it's been at least 2,496 days that this leak has existed.  At 14 gallons per day that's 35,000 gallons (832 barrels) of oil into the Gulf; if the basic $1,100 per barrel fine was assessed under the Clean Water Act, Taylor Energy would now be liable for a fine of almost $1 million.  But if they're not facing any fines, there's no incentive for them to expedite the plugging operation and stop this leak - especially if they can sublet the rig out to another company for what we suspect is a lucrative drilling job.

A recent study concluded less than 1% of the spills into Gulf waters off Louisiana resulted in any fine, and the fines that are assessed are ridiculously small compared to the profits realized from offshore oil and gas production.  Why is weak and inconsistent enforcement such a big deal? Because it sets up what economists like to call a "moral hazard," encouraging companies to engage in risky behavior that they otherwise might think twice about. 

And that burgeoning culture of sloppiness, if left unchecked by consistent and vigorous monitoring and enforcement, will inevitably lead to the next catastrophic oil spill.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Multi-modal commuting

Here at SkyTruth we are always trying to reduce our carbon footprint, which is why I have started riding my bicycle in to work. The problem is that my house is about 3 miles away from the office, and the road that gets me there has no shoulder, no shade, tight corners and too many cars. So while I do feel quite virtuous about all that carbon I'm not emitting every time I ride in, I really don't enjoy the ride very much.

However, we are blessed here in Shepherdstown with a GREAT resource just across the river in Maryland known as the C&O Canal. This is the old canal built in the 1800's to ship goods from Cumberland, MD down to Washington, DC. It's now a National Park, and the old tow path is well maintained so it makes for a really nice bike ride along the river, under the shade of big old sycamores, oaks and poplars. The only problem is that it's on the other side of the river from my house, and the only crossing is the James Rumsey Bridge at Shepherdstown, which is at the other end of the hot, narrow, winding road.

Solution: borrow an old canoe from a neighbor and paddle across with my bike, tie it to a tree on the other side, and then ride down to Shepherdstown on the quiet, cool canal tow path, and finally cross the bridge and ride through town to the office.

View Paul's commute to work in a larger map

Friday, July 8, 2011

Oil Slick from Platform 23051 Site - Aerial Video

Bonny Schumaker of Wings of Care flew out over the site of former platform 23051 in the Gulf on Friday, July 1, to document the chronic oil leak there. She reported seeing just a buoy at the location, and a long oil slick. Check out her blog to see several photos and this brief video she captured during that flight showing what appears to be a rainbow sheen (0.3 to 5 microns thick). 

The Ocean Saratoga drill rig is no longer working at the site, yet this chronic leak since 2004 has not been repaired.  When will this job resume?  And when will it be finished?

Closing The Book on This One - For Now

So there have been lots of questions and not very many answers over the past few weeks regarding the status of leaking wells in the Gulf. Where are they? Are they leaking? How much? Who owns them? Questions led to more questions, so the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) took action to get to the bottom of things.

A possible spill was originally reported off of Venice, LA (see our blog) on June 8. Later that same day, an oil slick in that general vicinity was sampled and tested by scientists from National Wildlife Federation and LSU, who determined this was fresh crude oil unrelated to the BP spill. On June 10 our GMC partners at SouthWings took Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network on a flight to see where that leak was coming from, but they didn't find anything near the coordinates where the leak was originally reported.

However, they DID stumble across an actively leaking well not far away, in Breton Sound. You can read Jonathan Henderson's blog here. Below is the well, obviously leaking, photographed on June 10, 2011 during the overflight. You can see all the photos taken on that flight here.
Photo taken on June 10 by Jonathan Henderson of Gulf Restoration Network
Many, many thanks go out to the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, who on June 17 went out in a boat to inspect that well in Breton Sound. Paul and Michael Orr went out check the status of the well head. What they found was that this well was no longer leaking but there was a distinct petroleum odor on site. The well looked somewhat battered, as if it was hit by a vessel, but there was no oil leaking from it.
Photos taken on June 17, 2011 by Jeffrey Dubinsky
You can check out their gallery and see not only the well in question but the other shots they took of the declining oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf, like this one:
Photo taken on June 17, 2011 by Jeffrey Dubinsky
Hopefully this puts to rest the saga of the leaking well in Breton Sound for now, but the Gulf Monitoring Consortium is hard at work keeping an eye on things, because sadly there will, no doubt, be many more leaks to investigate.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The "Frack Pack" is Back

The "Frack Pack" (Ben, Michelle and Ed and Paul) is back from our expedition to frack country in north central PA, and now we're poring over all the data we collected last week. We don't have the data fully transcribed and processed yet, but I thought I would take a minute to share a quick report of our recent experience.

The goal of our expedition was to demonstrate that we can effectively predict where drilling hotspots will be in the coming months based on permit activity at the state level, and then conduct water sampling in adjacent streams to measure potential surface water impacts before, during and after the peak activity.

To do this we take new drilling permit approvals that we get from the Pennsylvania DEP, and project which permits will be drilled in the next 3 months based on past activity and past drill completion reports. Then we look at which watersheds contain the most soon-to-be drilled sites, and target those watersheds for water quality sampling.

So last month, we consolidated permit approvals from January through May and overlaid that on a map of the watersheds in the upper Susquehanna to determine which watersheds were most at risk of impacts in July and August. From that list we picked three to target, the Wysox, Meshoppen, and the Upper Pine.

Unfortunately, Google Earth only showed high quality imagery for the area from 2005, so there was no evidence of any new Marcellus drill pads there. And our friends at NASA had no recent, high quality (and free) satellite imagery available, so we looked around and found some decent aerial imagery available for the state of PA from summer 2010.

Using the newer imagery, we could see plenty of existing well pads, but we could also see that many of our recently permitted drill sites were in areas that had not been cleared as of summer 2010, so we were confident that we would be able to see fairly recent clearing and drilling activity.

For the 3 watersheds we found 16,17 and 14 clusters of permits in each, for a total of just under 47 sites to look at. Many of the sites are on private land, and not easily accessible from the public roadways, so we needed a way to get a good look at these sites so we could determine the level of activity at each. To solve this problem, we turned to our friends at LightHawk who were able to supply us with a plane and a pilot to fly us out of Elmira, NY for a 2-hour tour of our study area.

After the flight (which was a great success), we set out to get water quality samples in the streams near to the sites where we had observed the most recent activity. In general this effort went quite well, though the recent dry spell made for some pretty low flows in some of the smaller streams, and a few local property owners were a bit prickly to see a bunch of outsiders poking around in their streams, but all in all we collected some good data. We got an inch and half of rain on Saturday night, (3 out of our 4 tents came through it nice and dry - one team member had to bunk in the car), so on Sunday we got to collect a few post-rain event samples which will give us a nice comparison to the pre-rain measurements we made.

Like I said at the beginning, the data is still being transcribed from our notebooks, so we can't say much about that yet, and we are only looking at one sample per location right now, so we will have to go back and get more samples next month to see if we can see any changes. We will also be analyzing the excellent water quality monitoring data set provided by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission that has some permanent water quality monitoring stations in the area.

One thing we can say from our observations is that there is WAY too much sediment in these streams, which could be due to widespread land clearing for well pads, and perhaps more significantly, greatly increased road construction and road traffic creating large amounts of dust and storm runoff.

Stay tuned for future reporting based on our water quality measurements including Temperature, pH, Conductivity and Turbidity.

Bohai Bay Oil Spill - Lessons for Arctic Drilling?

Proponents of drilling in the Arctic Ocean claim the risk of significant spills is much lower than in places like the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, because the water is much shallower and the wells won't be drilled nearly as deep as BP's failed Macondo well.  But recent spills in the Bohai Bay off China, including a possible blowout in the Peng Lai 19-3 oil field, might lead to a reevaluation of those comforting assumptions. 

Peng Lai 19-3 is a new offshore field operated by US energy giant ConocoPhillips (Halliburton is the drilling contractor).  This is China's largest offshore oil field and it lies in very shallow water (76' deep).  The wells are also very shallow, only reaching about 3000' below the seafloor.  The development includes the largest FPSO in China.  This field represents an investment of at least $1.8 billion by ConocoPhillips.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

June 14 Satellite Image Shows Bohai Bay (China) Oil Spill

A MODIS/Aqua satellite image taken June 14 captured a serious oil spill in China's Bohai Bay.  Apparently the spill began from an offshore field called Penglai 19-3 operated by Conoco-Phillips on June 4, but the public was only recently informed. Chinese authorities have launched an investigation.  In their official statement the State Oceanic Authority noted that the oil slick polluted an area of 840 square kilometers (336 square miles), and that the spill has been controlled although some oil continues to enter the sea from "small leaking points."

We're not sure what that means, although from this description it sounds like there were separate problems at platform B and platform C, and that platform C may have suffered a loss of well control (a blowout) at the seafloor on June 17 - after the image below was taken:
MODIS/Aqua satellite image of Bohai Bay taken June 14, 2011. Apparent oil slick in vicinity of Penglai field outlined in yellow.
Detail from MODIS/Aqua image taken June 14, 2011. Apparent oil slick outlined in yellow.  Islands in Bohai Bay are labeled for reference.
Most of this area in eastern China is obscured by clouds, heavy haze, fog and dust storms on the NASA/MODIS satellite images taken over the past month.  On June 14, though, this MODIS/Aqua image captured the oil slick under relatively clear skies.  On that day the slick appears to cover about 314 square kilometers.  Assuming 1 micron thickness, that would amount to 83,000 gallons of oil, but that should be considered a bare-minimum estimate for this spill.

We'll keep analyzing the imagery in coming days to see if there are ongoing problems in the Penglai field.

Friday, July 1, 2011

SkyTruthing --> AirTruthing --> GroundTruthing the Marcellus Shale

Paul getting ready to fly our Marcellus target area today.
Today our intrepid water-quality team went up in the air on a reconnaissance flight of new Marcellus Shale gas-drilling sites in northern Pennsylvania, thanks to our flying friends at LightHawk.  Paul, intern Ben, and videographer Ed got a great aerial tour of the three watersheds within the Susquehanna drainage that we targeted using satellite and aerial imagery and GIS data to identify current drilling activity.  Intern Michelle is taking a short break from her Gulf of Mexico oil-pollution duties and is joining them to help take water-quality measurements in streams throughout these watersheds, to see if we can identify any impacts from drilling and fracking.  Paul told me this afternoon they saw plenty of signs of fracking: well sites crowded with rectangular tanks that look similar to the cargo containers that get stacked up on oceangoing freighters. He also said the drilling sites they saw appeared shipshape, with erosion-control measures in place; but the access roads were another story.
Fracking tanks lined up at Marcellus Shale drilling site near Dimock, Pennsylvania in 2010. Photo copyright J Henry Fair.
So what will they find this weekend?  We really don't know.  Hopefully, nothing unusual.  But in some places folks have noticed degraded water quality associated with the onset of drilling activity.  This may happen for a variety of reasons.  Our team will measure temperature, pH, conductivity and turbidity, and compare these measurements with pre-drilling baseline water quality data available from the state.  We'll let you know what we learn.