Monday, February 27, 2012

Small Slick at Chevron's Blowout off Nigeria

Chevron's gas-well blowout in the Funiwa field off Nigeria continues to burn as efforts are underway to drill a relief well.
Fire from blowout at Chevron gas well off Nigeria. Image source:

This Envisat ASAR satellite radar image taken today (February 27) shows a small slick apparently emanating from the site where the doomed KS Endeavor rig was drilling. We've seen a small slick repeatedly at this area since the blowout occurred.  Possibly there are some petroleum liquids coming up with the gas, and not completely burning off.  The slick on today's image is about 10 miles long:

Small slick apparently emanating from location of Chevron's Funiwa-1A gas well blowout.  Envisat ASAR image taken February 27, 2012.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Small Slick at Platform P-51, Marlim Sul Field, Brazil

Platform P-51 in Marlim Sul field of Brazil's Campos Basin.  Source: Wikipedia.
 An Envisat ASAR radar satellite image taken on February 23, 2012 shows a small slick apparently emanating from Platform P-51 in the Marlim Sul field of the Campos Basin, about 70 miles offshore:

Envisat ASAR image taken February 23, 2012 showing small slick apparently emanating from location of Platform P-51.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.
Covering 10 square kilometers, this slick represents a spill of about 2600 gallons, assuming an average oil slick thickness of 1 micron.

Why BP Should Go On Trial For Gulf Oil Spill

The federal trial to determine accountability and penalties for the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil and gas disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was set to begin in New Orleans this morning, but has been delayed by one week to allow more time for BP, the feds, and other stakeholders to reach a settlement. 

Deepwater Horizon rig sinking on April 22, 2010.
We appreciate that the many businesses and families harmed by this massive industrial accident may want to receive compensation sooner rather than later. A trial and the inevitable appeals would likely stretch on for years, with the outcome uncertain.

On the other hand, a quick settlement is the best outcome for BP, because they may avoid having to pay the higher $4,300-per-barrel-spilled fine for "gross negligence," and would only face the much lower automatic fine of $1,100 per barrel.  Given a total spill of 172 million gallons (4.1 million barrels), that's a very big difference: $4.5 billion instead of $17.6 billion.  Even a company as large as BP, which earned profits of $23.9 billion in 2011, would feel some pain from the gross negligence fine.  And unless they feel real pain, the offshore drilling industry is likely to continue doing business as usual, making another massive deepwater spill a near certainty.

More important than meting out sufficient punishment: there is bipartisan legislation in play called the RESTORE Act that would specifically allocate 80% of the fine to the Gulf states affected by the spill, rather than the general treasury. We assume (optimistically) much of the money would be used by those states to fund social, economic and ecosystem revitalization projects.  If the Act does get passed by Congress, the additional $13.1 billion yielded by a determination of gross negligence could make a huge difference to Gulf communities. 

Most interesting to us: if settlement talks fail and this case goes to trial, we expect federal prosecutors will attempt to paint BP as a "rogue" operator that took unusual risks, to convince the judge that the spill resulted from gross negligence.  BP, to defend itself, will likely claim that their operations, well design, and decisionmaking were not so unusual, and were consistent with industry-wide practices.  To make that case BP will have to present lots of information about the offshore drilling industry as a whole, including the safety record, accidents and near-misses experienced by other companies that we never hear about.  None of the official investigations of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill looked at the industrywide record, leaving many of us wondering:

Just how risky is modern offshore drilling?

A trial may be the only way to answer that question, so we can make better-informed decisions that minimize the likelihood and impact of the next big spill as industry moves steadily forward with deepwater drilling.

Friday, February 24, 2012

File this under "Violators WILL be held accountable for their actions"

We applaud the Pennsylvania DEP after reading the report yesterday on's website which stated that Catalyst Energy, Inc. has been fined $185,000 for water contamination, erosion violations and spills. Oh my!

It should be noted that these violations occurred at Catalyst's non-Marcellus oil and gas drilling sites in Forest, McKean and Warren Counties in Pennsylvania. In Forest County, there were 14 incidents of water contamination, with water samples showing higher levels of iron, manganese and methane than in samples taken prior to the start of drilling in those areas. Sloppy, sloppy.

Read the article to see what other fun things occurred at Catalyst's sites, and tell us what you think. Is enough being done? Should there be more controls put in place?

6.6 Million Gallons of Crude Oil Spilled in Paulsboro, NJ

Photo courtesy of WPVI-6ABC, Philadelphia

Yesterday there was a spill of 6.6 million gallons of crude oil at the Paulsboro Refinery in Paulsboro, NJ. The Paulsboro Refinery is own by PBF Energy and is located not too far across the Delaware River from the Delaware City Refinery, which is also owned by PBF Energy.

According to a report from the West Deptford Patch, 6.6 million gallons of crude oil spilled into an emergency containment area, but the DEP reports that there is no major health or environmental risks associated with the spill.

Photo courtesy of WPVI-6ABC, Philadelphia

Workers sprayed the oil with foam after the spill occurred yesterday, however due to the rain in the South Jersey area overnight, the foam broke up and the smell is back and has drifted over the river to Marcus Hook, PA. This news report from WPVI-Channel 6 in Philadelphia shows aerial footage taken yesterday in a flyover by their HD camera on Chopper 6. In the footage you can see the foam being sprayed over the spill. Channel 6 reports 6.3 million gallons spilled.

The NRC report, which was taken yesterday at 3:15 p.m reports 10,000 gallons of oil spilled.

Photo courtesy of WPVI-6ABC, Philadelphia

The Gloucester County Times reports that yesterday's leak stemmed from a broken pipe on a containment tank that has the capacity to hold 12 million gallons. The fuel odor can be detected as far south as Baltimore County, Maryland, according to this recent report by the Park Overlea Patch.

Lazy? Try SkyTruth Alerts!

We built SkyTruth Alerts to give us a heads up whenever something happens that we might want to investigate with satellite imagery.  But we figured if something happens that we want to know about, you probably want to know about it too. It's the easiest way to get info about oil and gas drilling activity in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and accidental spills and releases to air, land and water of oil and other hazardous materials throughout the US and territories. It also includes special SkyTruth reports on oil spills and other incidents world wide, like recent spills off Nigeria and Brazil, and the bilge-dumping evidence we blogged about yesterday off Vietnam.

And because I'm a geeky geologist, we've included global reports from the US Geological Survey on earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 or greater. 

The lazy part?  You can use the map to zoom in to your particular area of interest, then click on the RSS or email icons to get an RSS feed or a single daily email report whenever anything new pops up in that area.

Then sit back and let the info come to you....

SkyTruth Alerts map at 10am on February 24 2012.  Drilling activity (new permits issued; drilling commenced) shown as colored triangles; pollution incidents shown as red dots.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bilge Dumping off Vietnam - February 22, 2012

We've posted about bilge dumping before - the practice of flushing the oily slop out of your vessel, straight into the ocean.  It's illegal in a lot of places, but it is very hard to enforce.  SkyTruth's daily offshore monitoring program just caught this fine (awful?) example of bilge dumping off the coast of Vietnam, in a major north-south shipping lane about 115 miles offshore: 

Envisat ASAR satellite radar image off Vietnam, February 22, 2012. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Zooming in on those black streaks, and turning the image west-up, here's a closer look at this mess:

Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency.
More images and analysis after the jump....

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hydrogen Cyanide....It Isn't Just for Delaware City Refinery Anymore.

As you may remember, awhile back we reported about the release of Hydrogen Cyanide at the Delaware City Refinery. The facility had just reopened on Friday, October 7, and on Tuesday, October 18, we blogged about the almost daily report of this chemical being released from the refinery.

As it turns out, Hydrogen Cyanide releases aren't just reserved for the folks up in Delaware. On February 18, our SkyTruth Alerts system reported a release of this same nasty chemical at a manufacturing facility just outside of Victoria, TX. According to the NRC report, 15 lbs of Hydrogen Cyanide as well as 140 pounds of Anhydrous Ammonia were released from the Invista manufacturing facility due to the hydrogen convertors shutting down. They're still not sure what caused the convertors to shut down at this point.

According to Invista's website, 'you can find Invista inside the fibers of your carpet or rug, the bristles on your toothbrush and the fabric in your clothing.' And their nylon fibers and plastics are 'in your car, your office chair, your kitchen appliances, and even your sports equipment.'

This facility in Texas is just 9 miles away from Victoria, TX and just 4 miles away from Bloomington, TX. Victoria has a population of over 86,800, and Bloomington boasts over 2600 residents. That's a lot of nice people who may be breathing in some nasty junk.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Oak Flat Land Exchange; Proposed Wasterock Storage Piles

I’ve been recently asked to demonstrate the visual impacts of some potential wasterock dumps in Superior Arizona. We’ve acquired the plans for the wasterock dumps. The plans were drawn by Golder Associates in 2010 for Resolution Copper Mining, a company pushing for the privatization of public land for the purpose of copper mining. So we did a little bit of research and learned about the proposed Land Exchange and Conservation Act. With the approval of this Act, Resolution Copper Mining will swap a portion of their private land in exchange for public property, including Oak Flat and Apache Leap. This land was set aside for public use by President Eisenhower in the 1950’s. It has become a well known place for climbing, hiking, and camping and is considered sacred by the local tribes. Anti-mining groups believe that the mining operation will likely destroy much of the area. It will also generate huge volumes of wasterock-- earth and rock that is removed to get to the copper ore. Resolution is proposing to build a giant storage impoundment just north of town, to hold the wasterock.

Rendering of proposed Resolution Copper wasterock storage piles. Town of Superior Arizona at right.
Based on these plans, I have rendered a 3D model of the large (permanent) and intermediate (temporary) wasterock dumps using Google Sketchup. I then placed them in Google Earth. We've created an image gallery, illustrating how large the wasterock dumps are and what they might look like from various perspectives in town.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Taylor Oil Spill: 7 Years, 1.1 Million Gallons, Still Going

Today SkyTruth released our Site 23051 Cumulative Spill Report showing our estimation of the total cumulative amount of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at the site of Taylor Energy's ongoing oil spill that began in 2004. In this report, we conclude:
  1. Crude oil has been leaking continuously from this site for more than 7 years
  2. Estimated cumulative volume of crude oil spilled is between 251,677 and 1,174,492 gallons
Read the full report to see how we came up with these numbers.

Radar satellite image of 21-mile-long slick apparently emanating from Site 23051 on July 16, 2011.  Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency.

We created this report using 950 pollution reports filed with the National Response Center (which we presume were filed by the polluter, Taylor Energy) covering 714 out of 2,662 days (just 27%) from the first report of oil at the site on September 17, 2004 through the end of 2011.  We filled in the substantial gaps in this official public reporting record with observations on satellite images, and then computed an Estimated Average Daily Slick Extent.  From that we derived an Estimated Average Daily Flow Rate for each calendar year since the spill began.  Multiply the daily flow rate by the number of days the site has been leaking, and you have an estimate of the cumulative volume of the spill.

There are two key assumptions we used to compute the average daily flow rate:
  • Average oil thickness in observable slicks
  • Average rate of degradation of an oil slick, expressed in terms of a half-life
For average thickness, we used our tried and true standard of 1 micron (1 millionth of a meter); we also computed everything using 0.5 microns to reflect the possibility that this slick is thinner than most.  For degradation half life, we assumed that one half of a given amount of a thin slick of oil on the surface of the ocean will degrade in 3-7 days. We believe this range is a very conservative assumption, because the longer the assumed lifetime of oil on the surface of the water, the lower the implied daily flow rate will be.

Combining all our data on slick extent with the high and low values for each of the key assumptions, we get 4 values for estimated cumulative oil spilled (see the calculations):

Half Life (days)Thickness (microns)Estimate(gallons)

SkyTruth, the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and others have been actively monitoring this site for 21 months since May of 2010 (during what turned out to be the early days of the massive BP/Deepwater Horizon spill), when we noticed on our satellite images another much smaller slick about 11 miles off the tip of the Mississippi River Delta.

Since then, we have analyzed historic satellite imagery back to the beginning of the spill,  and we have waded through the spotty but extensive public record of official pollution reports filed with the National Response Center.   Site 23051 also featured prominently in the recent Gulf Monitoring Consortium report, and earlier this month Waterkeeper Alliance announced a lawsuit against Taylor Energy over the ongoing spill.

Other Sources of Estimates
As far as we know, our report is the first comprehensive attempt to estimate the total amount of oil spilled at this site.  However, the Coast Guard was recently quoted in an AP news article as saying "a total of 12,720 gallons of oil have been reported from daily observations since the spill started in 2004".

We called the Coast Guard last week and asked them where that number came from, and they told us "Approximately 12,720 gallons have been reported from daily observations (over flights) as of 2/2/12."   Today we followed up and the Coast Guard told us that this number is the total of all the reports filed with them by Taylor Energy who is conducting the regular overflights, but they could not say how many reports this represents.

We asked them to investigate and get us a breakdown of exactly what they added up to get this number, especially what days are actually covered in that total,  but as of this writing we do not have an answer.   However, if their reporting record is as spotty as the public NRC record, then this number likely only captures a fraction of the true amount.

More on this under-reporting problem coming soon, so stay tuned.

Parting Thought:  Worst-Case Scenario?
The environmental and economic damage from this chronic spill may be relatively minor, although if you ask a biologist and tell her it's a 1.2 million gallon spill, you might get a different answer than if you tell her it's only a 12,000 gallon spill.  But imagine that the same event that wiped out Taylor's platform just 11 miles off the coast, had instead happened at a deepwater platform 100 miles offshore.

More on that later.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Small Slick Visible At Site of Chevron's Blowout and Fire off Nigeria

Teri noticed a small slick on today's Envisat ASAR radar satellite image covering the site of Chevron's blowout and fire off the coast of Nigeria. We measure it at about 18.6 kilometers long, extending about 39 square kilometers.  It appears to be very thin.  Assuming the slick is, on average, one micron thick, that amounts to about 9,500 gallons of some oily substance -- possibly unburned natural gas condensate, since this was reported by Chevron to be a gas exploration well that was not creating any oil slick:

Detail from Envisat ASAR image taken February 8, 2012. Location of blowout marked by rig symbol.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.
This MODIS image taken on February 3 (and this one from February 5) shows the ongoing fire where the KS Endeavor drill rig used to be, before it toppled over and sank: 

Matching detail from a NASA/MODIS image taken February 3, 2012 showing continuing fire (red spot) at site of Chevron blowout.  Image courtesy MODIS Rapid Response Team.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Gulf Monitoring Consortium Issues 6-Month Report

Back in April 2011, SkyTruth joined forces with SouthWings and Waterkeeper Alliance to coordinate our responses to oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.  Calling our partnership the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, we've worked by space, air and sea to investigate reports and rumors of pollution incidents.  Along the way we've identified spills not reported to Federal agencies, like this discharge from a platform along the Louisiana coast, and a leak from an offshore well in Breton Sound.  We've chronicled the continuous, ongoing leakage of oil from wells owned by Taylor Energy that were damaged by Hurricane Ivan more than seven years ago.  And we've looked into the continuing confusion surrounding the repeated sightings of oil near the Macondo well, source of the BP / Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010.

We've produced a brief report that summarizes the Consortium's activity from April to October 2011, includes fact sheets on key investigations we've conducted, and discusses our findings so far, including:
  • Lack of reporting of oil spills by responsible parties
  • Underreporting by responsible parties
  • Inconsistencies in National Response Center (NRC) collection and publication of oil spill reports
 We also estimate, based on our analysis of NRC reports, that as much as 2 million gallons of oil may have been spilled from October 2010 through September 2011 -- nearly ten times more than reported by the polluters themselves.

Click here to read the report.

Chevron Blowout and Fire Continues off Nigeria

NASA/MODIS satellite imagery taken yesterday shows that the blowout and fire at a Chevron gas well off the coast of Nigeria continues.  That's 20 days and counting.  It will take weeks to drill a relief well; according to Chevron the Transocean relief rig is on site, and drilling should begin soon.

Chevron "has moved food and supplies to the communities in the area to recognize the help and support that they have given the company."

MODIS-Terra satellite image of Niger Delta showing fire from Chevron offshore well blowout (red spot at center).  Image taken February 5, 2012.  Courtesy NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Scientists Ask For More Arctic Science Before Drilling

573 scientists, including renowned oceanographer and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle, signed a letter just delivered to President Obama asking him to follow the recommendations of a 2011 US Geological Survey report to fill in gaps in our understanding of Arctic Ocean marine science, before allowing full-blown oil and gas drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

Shell and BP are two of the big players with big drilling plans for the Arctic.  Both have caused major oil spills recently, off Nigeria a few weeks ago and of course in our own Gulf of Mexico in 2010.