Oil Spill Tracker Goes into Retirement

The Gulf Oil Spill Tracker is now enjoying a well-deserved retirement.

SkyTruth created the Gulf Oil Spill Tracker in 2010, with support from Surfrider Foundation and Ocean Conservancy. It was launched to help Gulf-area residents fill the information vacuum — and correct some of the misinformation — spawned by the  BP-controlled spill response process during the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Interested citizens and organizations tracking the impact of the spill on the Gulf coastline could submit oil pollution reports with text and images, and include links to news articles and video. Our Oil Spill Tracker tool (built on a crowd-sharing platform called Ushahidi) displayed the reports on an interactive map where anyone could view them, and sent out alerts to people who had signed up to be notified about them. Over 400 citizen reports were uploaded during and in the aftermath of the spill.  Users included concerned citizens around the world, government officials and staff from the local to national level, and members of the media.

One of our diligent users, Susan Forsyth, told us the citizen-submitted reports of continued oil spill impacts on the beaches of Florida played an important role in keeping BP and the US Coast Guard from prematurely declaring victory and suspending their cleanup operations there. Florida state officials were thankful for that.

A reporting mechanism specifically for the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill is no longer needed so we finally decided to retire Gulf Oil Spill Tracker as of April 24, 2017. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade  tracks pollution in the Gulf region with their iWitness Pollution Map, a similar tool that SkyTruth helped them launch, so head over to their site if you want to continue submitting or receiving reports.  And of course we continue to operate SkyTruth Alerts, which publishes official reports of oil and hazardous materials spills nationwide that are collected by the National Response Center.

Impact Story: BP Spill — Using Science to Hold BP and Federal Regulators Accountable

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Within a day of the April 20, 2010 explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig in the Gulf of Mexico, we began our high tech surveillance of the spill. Examining satellite images and aerial survey data, SkyTruth quickly became a leading source of independent, unbiased information on the size and scope of the disaster.

It was the largest oil spill in the nation’s history, releasing almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As bad as it was, it could have been even worse. Had BP continued to downplay the extent of the disaster, delaying mobilization of the appropriate response, it may have taken even longer than the 87 days it took to cap the well. Our work challenged the official story, spurred government science agencies to get off the sidelines,  and opened a public dialogue about the magnitude of the risk posed by modern offshore drilling..

Throughout the spring and into mid-summer of 2010, as BP’s disabled well continued to pump oil into the Gulf, SkyTruth president John Amos was quoted in hundreds of news reports, and his interpretation and analysis of the raw imagery helped policy makers, the press and the general public make sense of events as they unfolded.

SkyTruth also played a vital watchdog role. One week after the accident, we raised concerns that the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf was likely much higher than the 1,000 barrels-a-day estimated by BP and repeated by government officials. The New York Times and other media outlets picked up the analysis published on the SkyTruth blog on April 27. The next day, government officials publicly broke ranks with BP and raised its estimate to 5,000 barrels a day, the amount we had initially calculated.

John and other independent experts kept the issue in the headlines by presenting new estimates of 20,000 and then 26,500 barrels per day as new images and data became available, leading the public to question whether BP was low-balling the spill rate. On May 4th, the company privately acknowledged the possibility that the well was likely gushing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day, 10 times more than the government had previously estimated.  (Later, the government’s scientific teams concluded that the higher estimate was closer to the truth; they estimated that 53,000 barrels were leaking each day immediately before the well was capped on July 15.)

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While NASA and the governments of several foreign countries made their satellite images freely available, without organizations like SkyTruth to interpret those images, the public may have never known the true impact of the spill.

Equally important, we invited people directly into the conversation. Tens of thousands visited our website, blog, Twitter and Facebook pages. During the first ten days of June, for instance, our Blog received more than 70,000 visits – 25,000 in a single day. Meanwhile, our Oil Spill Tracker site, deployed on the fly in the first days of the spill, allowed Gulf residents to act as citizen journalists posting commentary and observations, as well as photos and videos of oil awash on the beaches and petroleum-drenched wildlife.

Oceanographer Ian R. MacDonald, who collaborated with the organization during the three-month Gulf spill and an earlier one in Australia’s Timor Sea in 2009, likens SkyTruth’s mission to that of “a fire truck.”

“When there’s an emergency, SkyTruth is there,” says MacDonald, a professor at Florida State University and one of the world’s foremost experts in remote sensing of oil slicks. “From the beginning of the BP spill to the end, SkyTruth was a public source of very timely raw satellite images and interpreted products, as well as a thoughtful commentary that pulled in the views of other people.”

2010 BP Spill in Gulf of Mexico – How Big Was It?

Final moments of the doomed Deepwater Horizon drill rig, April 22, 2010.

A judge in New Orleans is now pondering a big-money question: how big was the 2010 BP oil spill?  Exactly how much oil gushed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico throughout the relentless summer of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil (and gas) disaster?  The Summer of Spillcam? 

Thar she blows:  BP spill cam, May 30, 2010.

Despite the government shutdown, lawyers from the federal Department of Justice are duking it out in court against a team of BP attorneys.  At stake: billions of dollars in fines levied under the Clean Water Act, which are calculated based on the amount that was spilled.  The feds say BP spilled 4.2 million barrels (176.4 million gallons); BP says it was much less, about 2.45 million barrels (102.9 million gallons).  If the judge rules that BP has to pay the full $4300 fine per barrel for gross negligence, that’s a whopping difference of $7.5 BILLION.  Congress passed a law called the RESTORE Act that will send 80% of the fine to the affected Gulf states, in part to conduct ecosystem restoration projects to repair damage from the spill; if BP’s lower number prevails, that’s $6 billion less for restoration work.

SkyTruth played a part during the spill to shed light on how bad it actually was.  When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in flames, we began collecting and analyzing daily satellite imagery, and publishing maps of the growing oil slick.  A Gulf oceanographer, Dr. Ian MacDonald (then at Texas A&M, now at Florida State), saw our images and slick-size measurements and suggested that BP and Coast Guard estimates of the flow-rate of oil from the well must be far too small to result in such a large and rapidly expanding oil slick. On April 27, 2010 – three days after the Coast Guard announced the Macondo well was leaking – we published on this blog our first estimate that the flow rate was at least 20,000 barrels (840,000 gallons) per day: 20 times greater than BP and the Coast Guard were saying.

Here’s a timeline of the flow-rate estimates made for the Macondo well in the first two weeks of the spill (some of the links to news accounts may no longer work). 

  • 4/22 – Deepwater Horizon rig sinks; Coast Guard estimates “up to” 8,000 barrels per day (bpd) is leaking – source
  • 4/23 – Coast Guard reports no leaking at all from the damaged well – source
  • 4/24 – Coast Guard reports well is leaking, estimates 1,000 bpd – source
  • 4/25 – BP repeats 1,000 bpd estimate – source
  • 4/27 – 1,000 bpd still the official Coast Guard and BP estimate – source
  • 4/27 – SkyTruth and Dr. Ian MacDonald publish first estimate that spill rate is 20,000 bpd – source
  • 4/28 – NOAA weighs in and raises the official estimate to 5,000 bpd based on aerial surveys “and other factors”; BP disputes this higher estimate – source
  • 4/29 – Coast Guard and NOAA repeat their estimate of 5,000 bpd – source
  • 4/29 – BP’s Chief Operating Officer admits new estimate of 5,000 bpd may be correct; “He said there was no way to measure the flow at the seabed and estimates have to come from how much oil makes it to the surface” – source
  • 5/1 – SkyTruth and Dr. Ian MacDonald publish revised estimate of at least 26,500 bpd – source
  • 5/1 – Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen “acknowledged there was no way really to know the extent of the leak” – source – and stated that “Any exact estimate is probably impossible at this time” – source
  • 5/1 – Coast Guard and NOAA cease estimating the rate of the spill. BP continues to use 5,000 barrels per day as their estimate of the spill rate.

On May 19, NOAA and the USGS convened a panel of scientists, dubbed the Flow Rate Technical Group, to measure the flow rate using several different approaches.  On May 27, more than one month into the disaster, they issued their first preliminary estimate of the spill rate.  Subsequent estimates were much greater; their final estimate was a flow rate of 62,000 barrels per day at the beginning of the spill, tapering back to 53,000 barrels per day by the time the well was finally capped on July 15, 2010.  Some, including scientists on the Flow Rate Technical Group, claim even these numbers are too low.  

So watch closely. The judge will be bombarded by highly technical expert-witness testimony from both sides.  The complexity, and lack of absolute certainty with any indirect measurement technique, favors BP: it’s likely the judge will ultimately make some kind of compromise, and the final for-the-record number will be based on a mix of politics, confusion and fatigue more than on actual science. 

“Mystery” Slicks at BP / Deepwater Horizon Site: Mystery Solved?

You may recall that sporadically throughout 2011 and 2012, satellite images and several aerial overflights of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill site revealed thin, recurring oil slicks in the area.  No known natural seeps were in the vicinity.  One obvious possibility is that the slicks were caused by residual oil, trapped in the mass of wreckage and failed containment equipment lying on the seafloor, that was episodically escaping and floating up to the surface as the wreckage settled and shifted.  Another possibility was that the doomed Macondo well, or one of the two relief wells drilled during the disaster in 2010, had somehow sprung a leak, despite being filled with cement.  Inspections by ROVs, and videos they collected from the wellheads, failed to turn up evidence of any leaks.

Slick photographed during overflight of BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill site on February 29, 2012 by Gulf Monitoring Consortium member Gulf Restoration Network. Photo courtesy Erika Blumenfeld.  See more.

A more ominous possibility was that oil had escaped laterally from the well during the blowout, had infiltrated bedrock next to the well, and was slowly making its way up to the seafloor through fractures in the bedrock — a situation similar to what happened off the coast of Brazil when a well Chevron was drilling suffered an underground blowout.

Researchers funded by The National Science Foundation think they’ve solved the mystery.  Their chemical “fingerprinting” work suggests the oil slicks were indeed caused by residual oil escaping from the wreckage, based largely on the presence of olefins (human-made compounds found in drilling fluid, but not in crude oil) in both the slicks they sampled, and samples of oil taken from the wreckage.  This might not end the debate, because large amounts of drilling mud were pumped into the well — and spewed back out of it into the ocean and onto the seafloor — throughout the ugly summer of 2010 in multiple attempts to kill it.  But we think this is the most likely explanation: the lack of recent observations of slicks in the area, either by aerial overflight or on satellite images, gives us some confidence that there is no continual leak coming from the well(s) or the seafloor.

BP On Trial – Finally

At long last BP is finally standing trial (before a single judge, not a jury) for civil damages caused by their catastrophic blowout in the Gulf of Mexico nearly three years ago. That blowout caused an explosion and fire on the massive Deepwater Horizon drill rig that killed 11 workers, injured many others, and sent the rig to the ocean floor nearly a mile below.  And the resulting oil spill was the nation’s worst to date, spewing some 172 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf.

In-situ burning of oil slicks during spill response operations in the Gulf of Mexico, June 22, 2010. Photo courtesy Dr. Oscar Garcia, Florida State University.

Assuming BP and their partners don’t come to a settlement with the Justice Department, the trial is expected to last throughout most of 2013. But don’t hit the snooze button just yet: this could get very interesting.  The trial will be conducted in two phases.  The first phase, underway now, will assign the share of blame for this tragedy among the defendants (BP, Transocean and Halliburton; right now they’re all doing their level best to deflect as much of the blame as possible onto each other).  It will also decide if, as government lawyers are arguing, BP acted with “gross negligence.”  That’s a key ruling because it ramps up the fine BP will pay from the standard $1,100 per barrel spilled, to $4,300 per barrel.  Under the RESTORE Act that Congress passed last year, 80% of that fine will go toward funding restoration projects in the Gulf region. As we wrote back in February 2012,

…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?

Given Shell’s serial blundering during their Arctic drilling program last year — problems so severe they just announced today that they’ve scrapped the entire program for 2013 — we have to wonder if BP is truly a “rogue” or if their level of risk-taking is more or less the norm throughout the offshore oil industry.

By the way, I’m somewhat dismayed at this statement yesterday by the Chairman and President of BP America, Lamar McKay, that suggests BP has a long way to go when it comes to establishing an effective safety culture:

I think that’s a shared responsibility, to manage the safety and the risk. Sometimes contractors manage that risk. Sometimes we do. Most of the time it’s a team effort.

I’m not a risk-management expert but it’s my understanding that this diffusion of responsibility, and unclear definition of authority, is exactly the kind of management muddle that leads to major system failures.  In other words, somebody has to clearly be in charge at all times.

The second phase of the trial will determine how much oil spilled into Gulf waters, the key to determining how big a fine BP will pay and how much money will go toward Gulf restoration.  That will pit lawyers against scientists.  Place your bets.

What’s Going On at the BP / Deepwater Horizon Spill Site?

We’ve been closely following recent developments at the site of BP’s disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  There’s been a nagging stream of sightings of small oil slicks in the vicinity since August 2011, more than a year after the failed Macondo well was killed and plugged.  We documented these “mystery slicks” on radar satellite images taken on August 30, 2011 and possibly again on September 11, 2011. Aerial overflights by On Wings of Care captured photos and video confirming the presence of these thin oil slicks. As we stated in our blog at that time,

Some have suggested that crude oil from the reservoir 8,000′ below the seafloor might be working its way up through faults and fractures in the bedrock, or along the Macondo wellbore.  If that happens we would expect to see “seepage on steroids” as oil works its way to the seafloor along multiple pathways and floats up to the ocean surface to form persistent oil slicks.

Rainbow oil sheen in vicinity of BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill site, photographed by Bonny Schumaker during low-level overflight on October 5, 2012. Photo courtesy On Wings of Care.

At the time this seemed highly unlikely to me.  Yet, just a few months later, Chevron lost control of a deepwater exploration well off the coast of Brazil and something remarkably similar to this scenario unfolded. Now we think it is possible that the recurring small slicks near the Macondo site might be caused by oil that leaked out of the well into surrounding bedrock during the months-long blowout, before the well was killed and cemented from top to bottom.  Some oil could have escaped either via cracks and holes scoured into the severely stressed well casing, or through the pressure-relief “burst disks” that were an intentional, and controversial, part of the Macondo well design (for more details read Joel Achenbach’s excellent book, ‘A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea‘).  If this scenario actually did happen, the residual oil is gradually migrating to the seafloor through existing natural fractures and faults in the bedrock, as it did in the Chevron incident off Brazil; and is seeping out of the seafloor into the water, floating up to the surface as droplets of oil and possibly oil-coated bubbles of natural gas; and forming thin slicks, behaving very much like the many natural oil seeps scattered throughout the Gulf.  Eventually this residual oil will work through the system and this artificially induced “seepage” will decline, as it did in the Brazil example (Chevron has also placed structures on the seafloor to capture the oil leaks off Brazil).

But is this actually happening at the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill site?

A series of recent slick sightings, again documented by pilot Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care beginning on September 14, raise the possibility. There are known natural oil seeps in the general vicinity that were identified and mapped by scientists at Florida State University long before the BP spill in 2010, but the closest of these is about  2.9 miles southeast, 3.1 miles south, and 4.9 miles northeast of the plugged Macondo well. BP suggested the slicks were caused by residual oil leaking from the wreckage on the seafloor: the massive Deepwater Horizon rig, the 5,000 feet of tangled riser pipe, the failed and discarded containment devices and other pieces of equipment. In October, BP plugged the cofferdam / containment dome device that had been used in the first failed attempt to stop the Macondo spill, claiming that leftover oil leaking out of this device had been the source of the recent oil slicks. But additional slicks sighted in the area on November 2 and November 9 caused the Coast Guard to order BP to deploy more ROVs to once again investigate the site and try to identify the source of oil for the mystery slicks. BP did so in mid-December, and the Coast Guard released four low-resolution videos of that inspection operation.  The videos were apparently shot on December 11-14, 2012.  We haven’t watched them all but BP and the Coast Guard claim they discovered no signs of leakage from the Macondo well or the two relief wells, or from any of the wreckage.  But this doesn’t address the question of possible leakage from the seafloor in the vicinity, the scenario that Chevron caused off Brazil.

The only way to answer that question is to conduct a systematic survey of the seafloor itself, not just the wellheads and wreckage.  Frankly, I think in all likelihood BP has already done this, so it should be a relatively simple matter of asking them to publish a report on the results, all of the video and other data they collected, and a map showing the survey grid they executed. If a thorough seafloor survey hasn’t been done yet, then it’s time for the Coast Guard to insist, to solve this mystery in a publicly transparent way that eases everyone’s fears. 

Report Oil Spills to NRC and Gulf Oil Spill Tracker

There’s some serious speculation that old oil from the 2010 BP / Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf could get churned up from the seafloor, and exposed by erosion of beaches and marshes, as a result of Hurricane Isaac’s wind and wave action. And as we’ve seen in past storms, new leaks and spills can occur from storm-pummeled platforms, pipelines, storage tanks and other facilities.

If you do see what you think could be a leak or spill of oil or hazardous materials, please report it to the National Response Center.  This is the nation’s official front-line agency for collecting and distributing information about pollution incidents. You can report via their website or by calling their toll-free hotline, 1-800-424-8802.  If your report to the NRC includes a good description of the location of your sighting (we love latitude/longitude coordinates, but the nearest street address is also useful) then we’ll be able to grab it from the NRC and put it on our SkyTruth Alerts map, so everyone can see your report. 

If you think you’ve observed oil pollution, you can also submit a report on the Gulf Oil Spill Tracker site for all to see. Including some photos with your Spill Tracker report is a great way to document possible new spills or the re-deposition of old BP oil, and helps validate your report. 

But above all, be safe.  Please don’t go out chasing oil spills in hazardous conditions.  Plenty of time for that after Isaac has moved on and the danger has passed.