Sentinel 1 radar satellite image showing small slick in the Gulf of Mexico on December 23, 2017, indicating an apparent leak or spill from an oil platform. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency (ESA).

A Look at the Risks of Offshore Drilling as Trump Proposes Largest Leasing Expansion Ever

Last week, the Trump Administration proposed to open up nearly all Federal waters for oil and gas drilling, reversing decades-long protection of areas in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

On December 23rd, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 satellite collected an image of the Heater Plf platform which appears to be leaking oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The Heater Plf is located approximately 13 kilometers north of the Delta National Wildlife Refuge in the Mississippi Delta. Based on our conservative analysis, the slick detected on this image holds at least 220 gallons of oil.

Sentinel 1 radar satellite image showing small slick in the Gulf of Mexico on December 23, 2017, indicating an apparent leak or spill from an oil platform. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency (ESA).

The image above reveals a small slick indicating a minor spill. But it’s the latest illustration of a much larger problem that doesn’t get much attention: the steady drumbeat of leaks and spills that accompany offshore drilling. For more examples illustrating this stealthy issue, see our analysis calculating the volume of the ongoing Taylor leak, our map of 10,000 spills since the BP spill and our work with the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.

This proposal to open Federal waters comes hand-in-hand with an announcement made last week, in which the Administration proposed reducing safety regulations on oil and gas drilling in the outer continental shelf. Currently, only the coastal waters of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico can be leased for drilling. These proposed reductions nullify safety rules which were put in place after the fatal and costly BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.

The Heater Plf platform is owned by New Century Exploration LLC, and according to information provided by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) the platform is no longer producing oil but has not been removed. In this 2014 legal brief, New Century and Champion Exploration LLC state that the new requirements under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act made it “infeasible” for them to prove their financial capability to handle oil spill preparedness. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, drilling companies were required to estimate the cost to clean up a “worst-case” scenario. New Century could not demonstrate they had the $1.8 billion required to clean up a worst-case spill, so they ceased activity at this site.

With the administration pushing to open new areas to drilling, it seems reckless to be walking back the safety rules put in place to help prevent the next catastrophic oil spill. More than seven years later, the Gulf is still feeling the effects of the largest accidental oil spill in history, while the drilling industry argues these regulations are burdensome to stakeholders and unnecessary. Can we afford to relax our safety standards regarding oil and gas drilling? Can the Gulf of Mexico survive another worst-case scenario like the Deepwater Horizon spill? Can we risk these disasters in the Gulf and elsewhere? Do we want the onus of recovery from these incidents to be shouldered by the taxpayers?

It’s an essential part of our democracy to voice your opinion about decisions that jeopardize public safety and the health of our public lands and waters. Submit your comment on the proposed rollback of the offshore drilling safety rules to the Federal Register by January 29, 2018.

Landsat 8 image from June 21, 2014 showing the oil slick from the Taylor Energy site.

Taylor Energy (Site 23051) Cumulative Spill Report – 2017 Update

With President Trump preparing to open the Atlantic coastline to offshore drilling, we thought it would be a good time to revisit the cautionary tale of Site 23051 — Taylor Energy’s 13-year old continuous oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

We’ve estimated the cumulative amount of oil that has leaked from the Taylor Energy site since 2004, finding:

  1. Crude oil has been leaking continuously from this site for more than 13 years; and
  2. The estimated cumulative volume of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from this chronic leak over the period 2004 – 2017 now stands between 855,421 and 3,991,963 gallons.

 

BACKGROUND

 

The Taylor Energy site perfectly captures the dysfunction of offshore oil development: In 2004, an underwater mudslide caused by Hurricane Ivan toppled one of the company’s platforms and buried the damaged wells attached to it on the seafloor.  Reports of oil on the surface at the site of the wreckage followed shortly after and a secretive clean-up effort ensued.  

 

In 2008, after several failed attempts to stop the leaks and Taylor Energy’s decision to sell off all of its income-generating oil and gas assets in the Gulf, federal regulators ordered the company to post a $666.3 million security bond to ensure there was enough money to plug the wells and clean up remaining pollution.  

 

In  2010 and 2011, Taylor Energy used a leased drill rig called the Ocean Saratoga to slowly find and plug some of the damaged wells (only 9 of the 25 wells at the site have been plugged).  Additionally, three underwater containment domes and an underwater collection and containment system were put in place at the wellhead area to try and capture any remaining oil.

 

Taylor Energy’s next step was to sue the government to try and recover more than $400 million from the trust they had set up previously.  The lawsuit is in limbo amid negotiations over the company’s remaining responsibility and the feasibility of further clean-up. Documents filed by the Justice Department on December 15th revealed new evidence of two plumes of oil and gas resulting in an “ongoing oil release,” bringing some renewed hope Taylor Energy will be held accountable for its mess.

 

CUMULATIVE SPILL ESTIMATES

SkyTruth became aware of the chronic leak from the Taylor Energy site in 2010 while analyzing satellite imagery of the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster.  We’ve reported on slicks coming from the Taylor Energy site dozens of times in the years since, and in 2012 we released a cumulative spill report estimating that between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons of oil had leaked from the site since 2004.  But with offshore drilling in the Atlantic looming once again, we thought now would be a good time to revisit those calculations and reconsider the risks that offshore drilling poses for coastal communities.

 

Our initial report estimated the cumulative amount of oil that had leaked from the Taylor Energy site over the period 2004-2011. We’ve updated those calculations to include years 2012-2017, finding that:

  1. Crude oil has been leaking continuously from this site for more than 13 years; and
  2. The estimated cumulative volume of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from this chronic leak over the period 2004 – 2017 now stands between 855,421 and 3,991,963 gallons.

 

Our 2017 update uses the same methods outlined in our 2012 cumulative spill report. Our update analyzes the information contained in 2,719 public pollution reports filed with the National Response Center. Most reports were likely filed by Taylor Energy or their contractors covering 2,275 out of 4,852 days (just 47%) from the first report of oil at the site on September 17, 2004, through December 12, 2017.  We computed an ‘estimated average daily slick extent,’ and 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 a rough estimate of the cumulative volume of the spill. For more on the methods, see our original report.  The data and analysis are accessible here.

 

In addition to our reliance on the accuracy of the pollution reports submitted by Taylor Energy, there are two assumptions we used to compute the average daily flow rate:

  • the average oil thickness in observable slicks; and
  • the average rate of degradation of an oil slick expressed as a half-life.

For average thickness, we used our conservative standard of 1 micron (1 millionth of a meter); we also computed everything using an even more conservative estimate of 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 would 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 four values for estimated cumulative oil spilled:

Half-life (Days) Thickness (Microns) Estimate (Gallons)
3 1.0 3,991,963
3 0.5 1,995,981
7 1.0 1,710,841
7 0.5 855,421

 

There is another potentially troubling trend in the data: since 2015, the average daily reported sheen extent has been significantly larger than in the past, while the number of pollution reports submitted to the NRC has come down.  

 

Average Daily Reported Sheen Extent
Year 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008
# of reports 192 176 371 346 361 323 130 167 381 272
# of days with reports 161 147 328 314 302 309 128 164 260 162
Average daily reported sheen extent (sq. mi) 12.845 14.351 15.330 4.423 1.572 0.337 1.10 1.70 5.83 2.73

 

On the one hand, these numbers could be the result of more diligent and accurate measurements made during routine monitoring and overflights, spurred in part by the public scrutiny this chronic leak has come under due to the work of SkyTruth and our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.  On the other hand, they could be the result of some qualitative change on the seafloor, in the damaged wells, or in the subsea reservoir that is allowing larger amounts of oil to leak out into the Gulf.

NEXT STEPS

The slight decrease in average reported sheen size over the past three years is somewhat encouraging: if the significant jump in 2015 was indeed due to more accurate reporting by Taylor Energy, then this recent downward trend could indicate the leaks are finally slowing.  But we are hampered by our dependence on observations and reports submitted by the responsible party, Taylor Energy.  These reports have been proven inaccurate, systematically underestimating the size of the slick by more than an order of magnitude compared with independent measurements based on direct observation of the slick on satellite imagery.  Direct, regular measurement and observation of the leak by a neutral party is crucial to understanding what is happening and predicting the likely future at this site. For this reason, we will continue our monitoring work.

 

 

 

Hurricane Harvey as seen by the GOES-16 satellite at 8:30 am CDT Friday, August 25, 2017. Image credit: NOAA/CIRA/RAMMB. NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite has not been declared operational and its data are preliminary and undergoing testing.

One-Third of U.S. Oil and Gas Reserves are Located in Harvey’s Path

Hurricane Harvey is anticipated to strengthen to a category 3 storm as it reaches the Texas coast tonight through early Saturday, bringing high winds, coastal flooding, and torrential rains. Some areas could see 30 inches or more of rain —  the amount these coastal cities normally get in a year.

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we saw leaks and spills from dozens of pipelines and platforms offshore, and from damaged coastal facilities, that cumulatively amounted to at least 9 million gallons of oil. After Ike and Isaac, we saw similar leaks from drilling sites, processing and storage facilities, and petrochemical facilities inundated by flood waters resulting from sustained heavy rainfall. Forecasts for Hurricane Harvey suggest we may see similar problems as it moves ashore.

Christian developed the following map using Carto to show just how much oil and gas infrastructure is in Harvey’s projected path (in red). The green points below represent offshore platforms. The gray lines are pipelines.

Map Legend: The black points on the map are Forecast center locations for Hurricane Harvey, from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center. The red area shows the potential track area, from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, the red path is the forecast path, again from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center The green dots represent offshore platforms, and the gray lines are pipelines, data from BOEM.

The black points on the map are the forecast center locations for Hurricane Harvey for the next few days, from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (data downloaded at 2pm ET on August 24).  The red path connecting those dots is the predicted track of the storm.  The larger area enclosed in red shows the potential track area, indicating a high degree of uncertainty as the storm is predicted to stall over the coast after making landfall late Friday.  The green dots show the locations of offshore oil and gas platforms, and the gray lines show seafloor oil and gas pipelines; data from BOEM. View more detail on our interactive map here.

We will be monitoring Hurricane Harvey over the weekend and will be sharing more information as it becomes available. In the meantime, follow the latest radar here.

 

Sentinel-2 multispectral satellite image showing oil slick making landfall along Kuwait’s coast near Al Khiran on August 11, 2017. Image courtesy of European Space Agency.

Satellite Imagery Reveals Scope of Last Week’s Oil Spill in Kuwait

A large oil spill was reported on August 10th off the southern coast of Kuwait near the resort community of Al Khiran. 

Imagery and Analysis

Sentinel-1 satellite imagery collected on the day of the spill shows a slick that covers 131 square kilometers. Based on our conservative estimate, assuming the slick is on average only 1 micron (1/1,000th of a millimeter) thick, this slick holds at least 34,590 gallons of oil. Early media reports of 35,000 barrels (=1.47 million gallons) seem far too high, based on how quickly the spill broke up and dissipated. 

Sentinel-2 multispectral satellite imagery collected on August 11 shows oil washing up on shore near Ras Al-Zour just north of Al Khiran, and Sentinel-1 imagery collected on August 14 shows remnants of the slick drifting along the coast to the north of Ras Al-Zour.

 

Sentinel-1 radar satellite image taken on August 10, 2017, showing large oil slick off Kuwait. Slick covers 131 km2, and contains at least 34,000 gallons of oil based on a minimum thickness assumption of 1 micron. Location of pipelay vessel DLB 1600 is indicated. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency.

Sentinel-1 radar satellite image from August 10, 2017, showing oil slick off Kuwait’s coast. Slick covers 131 km2 and contains at least 34,000 gallons of oil based on minimum thickness assumption of 1 micron. Location of pipelay vessel DLB 1600 indicated. Image courtesy of European Space Agency.

While the source and cause of this spill is uncertain, some have suggested it originated from a tanker offshore. Other reports speculate it is linked to the Al Khafji offshore oil field being developed by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which has pipeline infrastructure which runs to the shore. Operators deny the spill originated in their field.  At the same time the slick started, a pipeline laying vessel, the DLB 1600, was moving through the area. AIS data reveal this huge offshore construction vessel has been slowly moving eastward towards the infrastructure in the Al Khafji field for the past week, and on the 10th the DLB 1600 is visible on the Sentinel-1 image near the north end of the slick. One possibility we haven’t seen mentioned yet is the pipelay operation damaged some existing infrastructure on the seafloor — for example, an old pipeline still holding crude oil. The potential for anchor-dragging by the pipelay vessel to cause this type of damage is mentioned in this article describing plans to upgrade the DLB 1600 by installing dynamic thrusters; we don’t know if this upgrade has been implemented yet. By the 14th the DLB 1600 had closed to within 9 km of the Al Khafji field.

 

Sentinel-2 multispectral satellite image showing oil slick making landfall along Kuwait’s coast near Al Khiran on August 11, 2017. Image courtesy of European Space Agency.

Sentinel-2 multispectral satellite image showing oil slick making landfall along Kuwait’s coast near Al Khiran on August 11, 2017. Image courtesy of European Space Agency.

 

Sentinel-1 radar satellite image taken on August 14, 2017, showing remnants of oil slick off Kuwait. Location of pipelay vessel DLB 1600 is indicated. Vessel has moved several kilometers to the east compared to position on August 10. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency.

Sentinel-1 radar satellite image taken on August 14, 2017, showing remnants of oil slick off Kuwait’s Coast. Location of pipelay vessel DLB 1600 is indicated. The vessel moved several kilometers to the east compared to its position on August 10. Image courtesy of European Space Agency.

 

AIS tracking map showing the movement of pipelay vessel DLB 1600. Vessel has been moving slowly eastward since August 5, probably installing new pipeline on seafloor.

AIS tracking map showing the movement of pipelay vessel DLB 1600. The vessel has been moving slowly eastward since August 5, probably installing a new pipeline on the seafloor.

A second slick north of the first spill was reported today not far from where a huge $30 billion new oil complex is being built. Check out Business Insider’s short video for more context. We will update this post as new information becomes available.

 

 

The Liverpool Bay oil & gas infrastructure funnels through the Douglas Complex (ENI Liverpool Bay Operating Company, 2016)

ENI — Italian Firm Recently Approved for Offshore Exploration in Alaska — Responsible for Last Week’s UK Oil Spill

Blobs of oil and balls of tar washed ashore in northwestern England last week. The oily litter impacted a 15 kilometer stretch of coastline and originated from an OSI (offshore storage installation) that receives oil from the Douglas Complex, an offshore triple-platform central to the Liverpool Bay oil and gas production operations seen below.

The Liverpool Bay oil & gas infrastructure funnels through the Douglas Complex (ENI Liverpool Bay Operating Company, 2016)

The Liverpool Bay oil & gas infrastructure funnels through the Douglas Complex (ENI Liverpool Bay Operating Company, 2016)

The Douglas Complex is integral to the Liverpool Bay’s network because all oil and gas collected by its four satellite sites (Lennox, Hamilton, Hamilton East, and Hamilton North) is funneled through the Complex for processing. Natural gas products are then re-directed ashore to the Point of Ayr Gas Terminal and crude oil to the OSI. It was this latter-most connection, an oil tanker anchored in place, that failed in Liverpool Bay on July 10, 2017.

Radar imagery from  ESA’s Sentinel-1 satellite appears to show the slick resulting from this spill, as it drifts away from the storage tanker and heads toward shore. ASCAT satellite-derived surface wind data from the time of the spill confirms the wind was blowing from the north and east, consistent with the trajectory seen in these images. A spokesperson claimed that between 630-6,300 gallons of oil leaked; our conservative estimate, based on the size of the slick and an assumed average thickness of 1 micron, show this to be at least 6,843 gallons. Also note the half-mile gap between the OSI and a safety response vessel, the Vos Inspirer, on July 11 in the image that matches AIS vessel tracking data. An educated guess would be that the leak originated under water, potentially from the pipeline leading from the Douglas Complex, from the riser pipe from the seafloor to the OSI, or from the seafloor junction between the two.

Radar imagery from  ESA’s Sentinel-1 satellite appears to show the slick resulting from this spill, as it drifts away from the storage tanker and heads toward shore

Radar imagery from ESA’s Sentinel-1 satellite appears to show the slick resulting from this spill, as it drifts away from the storage tanker and heads toward shore.

U.S. Arctic Offshore Energy Policy Context

ENI, the Italian oil firm that accepted responsibility for the Liverpool Bay oil spill was recently granted access to drill for oil in US waters in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. This approval comes on the back of President Trump’s executive order that recently reversed a permanent ban on new offshore drilling.

The policy change has faced substantial criticism from environmental heavy-weights, culminating in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice, NRDC, Center for Biological Diversity, League of Conservation Voters, REDOIL, Alaska Wilderness League, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society to challenge the executive order’s legality.

Risk, Risk, Risk.

Beyond legal concerns, one would be remiss not to acknowledge the intrinsic risk of Arctic drilling. ENI reported the UK spill to be up to 6,300 gallons, and this took place in a very favorable location for clean-up. But experts agree we are ill-prepared for an oil spill in the markedly less forgiving conditions of the Arctic. The head of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Paul Zukunft, recently commented on the topic by saying:

We saw during Deepwater Horizon, whenever the seas are over four feet, our ability to mechanically remove oil was virtually impossible…Four-foot seas up there [in the Arctic] would probably be a pretty darned good day, so certainly environmental conditions weigh heavily in addition to just the remoteness.”

ENI might learn from Shell Oil’s failures. Shell canned a $7 billion offshore drilling project in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea after determining it was not financially worthwhile. Economic risk factors are furthered by International Energy Agency reports of an oil-supply “glut” and lowering crude prices amidst the rise of both renewable energy, and cheaper oil produced by fracking onshore.

Between supply-side risk, threats of lawsuits, and low oil prices, ENI is diving head first into a complicated, high-risk pool. Off the Fylde coast, authorities were quick to execute a plan after locals immediately brought the situation to their attention. As the Coast Guard continues to advocate for the basic resources needed for emergency preparedness and response in the Arctic, is this a gamble worth taking?

Persistent Oil Leak in Australian Waters Now Disclosed One Year After It Occured

Last week the Guardian reported on an oil spill on Australia’s North West Shelf that was detected in April 2016 but had not been made public until a performance report was recently issued by Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA). Despite the spill being estimated to have gone on for two months and released 10,500 liters of oil the Guardian reports that NOPSEMA declined to reveal exactly where the spill had occurred or which company was responsible.

Woodside’s FPSO OKHA

We had a look at operations currently in the area and identified a vessel which fits the description in the article. This is the FPSO OKHA operated by Woodside Energy. Our identification has now been confirmed as Woodside has admitted responsibility and the OKHA has been named as operating at the site.

Though this is being reported as the largest offshore leak in Australian waters last year Woodside states that the spill had no lasting impact on the environment.

On April 15, 2016 two likely response vessels appeared at the leak site. To the west is the dive support vessel Seven Eagle. About 900 meters to the east is the Nor Australis, an offshore supply vessel equipped with a ROV for underwater surveying.

We have examined imagery of the site from April 15th of last year, that is shortly before the OKHA returned to this location and around the time the leak was apparently first detected. Two response vessels appear at the leak site. The Nor Australis is an offshore supply ship equipped with a ROV which probably detected the leak. The dive support vessel Seven Eagle is a short distance to the west. We don’t see any signs of a slick in this image or in several others we checked. However it is still of concern that the report of an incident like this would be kept from the public for more than a year.

 

 

More Oil Spotted at the Taylor Energy Site

We posted about a slick emanating from the Taylor Energy site on April 28th. And surprise, surprise a mere 12 days later, what should we see but yet another slick.

In 2008 Taylor Energy set aside over $600 million to pay for work related to the chronic leak that we have covered extensively since it came to our attention in 2010. As you can see in this image collected by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2 satellite, as well as in numerous other images we have collected, their work to date doesn’t seem to have stemmed the leak.

Sentinel 2 image collected of the Taylor Energy Site on May 8, 2017.

Which begs the question: why is Taylor suing the government to return the $432 million remaining in trust? That money was set aside for work that is yet to be finished. Why would they think they have earned it back?