August 30 Oil Slicks In Gulf – Closest Facilities

Tropical Storm Lee is drenching the Gulf and has put the kibosh on any Gulf Monitoring Consortium investigations for the next few days (even radar satellite images will be screwed up by the heavy rain and gusty winds), so we’ll have to wait and see what next week brings.  In the meantime, one of our Facebook friends (thanks Judson!) prompted us to give a little more info about the oil and gas facilities closest to the August 30 oil slicks (shown as orange dots on this image):

BP’s Horn Mountain platform – located in Mississippi Canyon Block 127 about 8 miles east-southeast of the August 30 slicks, this manned “spar” structure was installed in 2002.  It is connected to the Destin natural gas pipeline system that was shut down on August 30 because it was producing too much liquid.

Exxon’s Mica subsea manifold – located in Mississippi Canyon Block 211 about 8 miles south-southwest of the August 30 slicks.  This structure on the seafloor produces oil and gas that is transported by pipeline to the Pompano platform about 27 miles away.  This “subsalt” discovery marked a milestone in Gulf production.

We don’t have any information that either of these facilities is experiencing any problems, but they are both closer to the August 30 oil slicks than the BP / Deepwater Horizon site, which is about 15 miles away.

Radar Satellite Image Shows Oil Slicks Seen August 30

An Envisat ASAR satellite radar image of the Gulf taken at about 10:50 pm local time on August 30 shows distinctive slicks corresponding with video and photos taken during an overflight earlier that day by Bonny Schumaker / On Wings of Care.  This image is complicated – NOAA/NODC data buoys in the area recorded very low wind speed (2-3 meters/sec) when the satellite passed overhead, near the lower limit for oil slick detection.  The thin spaghetti-like strands of dark slick throughout this area are most likely tendrils of natural surfactants that commonly appear on low-wind radar images of the ocean surface.  But the size, shape and appearance of a 14-mile-long slick that seems to originate at the 23051 Site matches many observations we’ve made on satellite imagery since we discovered a chronic leak at that location. And the large dark patch at the location of the August 30 overflight apparently confirms Bonny’s observations with an area of slick covering about 122 square kilometers. Given a minimum observable thickness on radar of 0.1 microns under these low-wind conditions, that would represent a minimum of 3200 gallons of oil.

First, here’s what the August 30 radar looks like.  The Mississppi Delta is the bright birds-foot pattern on the left edge of the image.  Water is medium-gray; slicks are black:

Envisat ASAR image taken August 30, 2011 about 10:50 pm local time. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Here’s the same chunk of image with markers showing the chronically leaking 23051 site, the Deepwater Horizon wreckage site, and the location of Bonny’s August 30 oil slick photos and video. Seafloor pipelines in yellow; recently troubled Destin pipeline shown in brown; active oil and gas platforms and other structures, including seafloor manifolds, are orange dots; natural seep locations are green dots:

Same area with features of interest marked. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Zooming in, here’s the August 30 radar image again showing a distinct patch of slick about 16 miles northeast of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill site.  Orange dots are active oil and gas production facilities (platforms, manifolds):

Detail from Envisat ASAR image taken August 30, 2011 about 10:50 pm local time. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Same area with other features marked for reference (pipelines in yellow, natural seeps are green dots). The brown highlighted pipeline is part of the Destin gas pipeline network, operated by BP, that was coincidentally (?) shut down on August 30:

Detail from Envisat ASAR image taken August 30, 2011 about 10:50 pm local time. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Here’s what the same patch of Gulf looked like on a radar image taken four days earlier, on August 26.  A small, 4-mile-long slick is visible just above the word “wreckage” – it’s about equidistant from a subsea manifold in the area and a couple of natural seeps, so either of these could be the source.  But this slick doesn’t seem related to the large patch observed on August 30:

Detail from Envisat ASAR image taken August 26, 2011. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

As usual, we’ll keep looking at this area as we get new imagery and information, and will let you know what we learn.

Oil Slicks Sighted Yesterday 16 Miles from BP / Deepwater Horizon Spill Site

Bonny Schumaker from On Wings of Care has been very busy flying the Gulf lately.  Yesterday she flew out over the site of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  About 16 miles northeast of the spill site, she ran across extensive oil slicks that look to us like a lot more than the typical natural oil seep normally produces.  Check out her report with a photo gallery and video.

There is a known seep location less than 2 miles to the south.  The nearest oil platform is 8 miles to the east; the closest pipeline is >5 miles to the northeast.  MODIS satellite images taken yesterday afternoon showed nothing unusual in the area, and the most recent radar image for the site was taken back on August 26.  We’ll keep looking and let you know what we learn.

Oil slicks on August 30, 2011 about 16 miles northeast of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill site. Photograph courtesy Bonny Schumaker / On Wings of Care.
Location of oil slicks documented by Bonny Schumaker on August 30, 2011. BP oil spill site (Deepwater Horizon wreckage) shown for reference.
Map showing August 30 flight line (pale blue), seafloor oil and gas pipelines (yellow), oil and gas platforms (orange dots), natural oil seeps (green dots), and BP oil spill site relative to slicks observed on August 30. Backdrop is shaded-relief bathymetry (seafloor “topography”).

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.

BP / Deepwater Horizon Oil & Gas Disaster – What’s Changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transocean Donates Bonuses to Victim’s Families

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

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

BP Hoping to Resume Drilling in Gulf of Mexico This Summer

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

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

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