The remnants of a likely bilge dump (dark streak) possibly from a vessel traveling north to a tanker “parking lot” (the cluster of dozens of bright spots, each representing a vessel at anchor) off the coast of United Arab Emirates.

From Monitoring for Bilge-Dumping to Analyzing Coal Mining Activity and Mapping a Proposed Pipeline Expansion, My Year in Review

International Projects

This summer, SkyTruth began monitoring bilge dumping “hotspots.” I focused my monitoring efforts in the coastal waters surrounding the United Arab Emirates and Oman or the “tip” of the Arabian Peninsula. I began by visiting the European Space Agency’s datahub (and USGS) daily and downloading tons of imagery. The downloading of imagery was tedious and time-consuming. Using Google Earth Engine, we created scripts to input an AOI and automatically queue up all the imagery in a specified date range, which is easy. But Earth Engine has a lag time ingesting new imagery from various satellites, so I still need to manually download from ESA’s data hub to obtain the most recent imagery. I customized different versions of the script with different AOIs covering the coastal waters I wanted to monitor.

The remnants of a likely bilge dump (dark streak) possibly from a vessel traveling north to a tanker “parking lot” (the cluster of dozens of bright spots, each representing a vessel at anchor) off the coast of United Arab Emirates.

The remnants of a likely bilge dump (dark streak) possibly from a vessel traveling north to a tanker “parking lot” (the cluster of dozens of bright spots, each representing a vessel at anchor) off the coast of United Arab Emirates.

Bilge is an oily liquid that accumulates in the bottom of the hull, and vessel operators will sometimes just dump it overboard. If the vessel is moving while bilge dumping, then the slick appears on radar satellite imagery as a long, skinny, black line. But if a vessel releases the fluid while anchored then the slick can appear as an irregular black patch. There are examples of both above and below. Sometimes the vessel would still be in the range of its environmental “gift.” Then we could report on that vessel as the likely culprit evidenced by satellite imagery. Satellites don’t lie.

The Nordic Jupiter, a crude oil tanker, anchored offshore Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, and located at the likely source of an apparent oil slick, suggesting a leak or possibly intentional bilge dumping.

The Nordic Jupiter, a crude oil tanker, anchored offshore Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, and located at the likely source of an apparent oil slick, suggesting a leak or possibly intentional bilge dumping.

Domestic Projects

Much of my time was spent on the Google Earth Engine surface mining identification process, which involved using Landsat satellite imagery to create a composite of only the greenest pixels from each year’s summer months and creating a NDVI band from that composite. The purpose was to identify bare rock and soil typical of active strip-mining operations, like mountaintop removal mining (MTR) to extract coal.

The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) is a ratio of a pixel’s red value to its near-infrared value. Vegetation absorbs most visible light but reflects the infrared, while bare surfaces reflect both. A low NDVI value indicates a bare surface and a high NDVI value indicates healthy vegetation. By masking out all urban areas, streets, railroads, etc., the only large bare surfaces left in our Appalachia study area are large-scale coal mining operations.

This process requires a lot of satellite imagery. To accomplish this, I used Google Earth Engine, a cloud-based platform with access to satellite imagery collections and various geospatial datasets, including the entire archive of Landsat images going back into the early 1970s.

In central Appalachian states like West Virginia, mountaintop removal is the process of removing the several top layers of rock to expose coal seams. It is a resource-intensive process that results in massive landscape change.  As much as 85% of federal coal comes from Wyoming and Montana, specifically the Powder River Basin. My job was to attempt to adapt our process designed around Appalachia to the flat, dry shrublands of Wyoming and document the results.

The first step was creating a new area of interest (AOI). In Wyoming, the Powder River Basin spans two counties in Wyoming (Converse and Campbell), and those county boundaries formed the study area. The next step was creating the mask to eliminate areas that we didn’t want to analyze. That process involved downloading GIS shapefiles for hydrology (lakes/ponds, rivers/streams), urbanized areas, roads, railways, and oil & gas drilling sites. Shapefiles are georeferenced to represent these features on a map accurately. To create the mask, these shapefiles were merged and converted to a binary image. We could exclude these elements from the analysis because some were misidentified as active mining.

Coal mining in Black Thunder coal mine, WY from 1985 (in green) to 2015 (in red) overlain on 2015 aerial survey photography (NAIP).

Annual progress of landscape disruption caused by coal mining at the Black Thunder coal mine, WY, from 1985 (green) to 2015  red) overlain on 2015 aerial survey photography (NAIP).

I also worked with Tracy Cannon of Eastern Panhandle Protectors on Mountaineer Gas Company’s proposed pipeline across the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. A very rough, general path for the pipeline had been published, but the particular route is not being shared by the company or state regulators. To give the public a more precise view of the pipeline’s likely route, Tracy visited county courthouses and gathered publicly available information about easements purchased by the gas company on dozens of properties in the area. She shared that information with us. We combined it with a public GIS layer for tax parcels that includes the outlines of residential and commercial properties. By using Google Earth to view all of the properties that had sold easements to the gas company, a more detailed pipeline path began to take shape through Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties. I discussed some assumptions about pipeline construction with the Protectors (to minimize construction costs a pipeline will take the shortest route between two points, but will also avoid sharp turns and steep slopes, excessive road and stream crossings, and when possible will keep clear of homes and other structures. With that in mind, I analyzed the Google Earth imagery and manually traced what I considered to be the likely pipeline path through our own Eastern Panhandle. The map shown below is our “best guess” based on the easement information provided by Tracy, and the very crude maps made public by Mountaineer.

The hypothetical Mountaineer pipeline path (dashed red line) overlain in Google street-view. The proposed pipeline enters Morgan County at upper left across the Potomac River and continues through Berkeley and Jefferson County.

The hypothetical Mountaineer pipeline path (dashed red line) overlain in Google street-view. The proposed pipeline enters Morgan County at upper left across the Potomac River and continues through Berkeley and Jefferson County.

My time as a SkyTruth intern was divided among a diverse set of projects, and it was certainly well spent. I’ve garnered an in-depth understanding of GIS and satellite imagery processing, map-editing, and worked in a team environment to accomplish complex tasks. Satellite images offer so much more than their beauty. I conclude my time at SkyTruth a true believer in the power of satellite imagery for environmental conservation. If you can see it, you can change it!

 

Site 3. Multiple flooded drilling sites approximately 1 to 1.25 miles west of Dreyer. The color of the floodwaters here suggests a possible oil or chemical spill.

Satellite Images Begin to Show Hurricane Harvey’s Environmental Impact

Our thoughts continue to be with the people of the Gulf Coast, as they start to recover and rebuild from Hurricane Harvey. The Hurricane turned out to be one of the most damaging natural disasters in U.S. history, dropping an estimated 27 trillion gallons of water on Texas and Louisiana.  

Harvey’s environmental impact is among the many consequences felt by residents. While many are still displaced, they are also dealing with all manner of air and water contamination from damaged petrochemical infrastructure. The cleanup has only just begun.

In the days since the Hurricane, we have been examining a wide variety of satellite imagery and datasets to help us try to understand the scope and environmental consequences of this catastrophic storm.

Satellite Imagery Shows Flooding of Well Pads and Impoundments in the Region

So far we have seen multiple drilling sites, and possibly drilling-related fluid impoundments, that have been inundated by floodwaters. It is highly likely that any drilling chemicals held in the impoundments have escaped into the floodwaters if those impoundments were submerged. Here are a few examples, looking at four locations along the Guadalupe River near Hochheim, Texas.

Index map showing the examples of flooded drilling sites below. All of the examples are from RapidEye 3 satellite imagery collected on August 30, and made publicly available thanks to the International Disaster Charter.

Index map showing the examples of flooded drilling sites below. All of the examples are from RapidEye 3 satellite imagery collected on August 30 and made publicly available by Planet thanks to the International Disaster Charter.

Site 1. A flooded drilling site (well pad) and possibly a flooded drilling-related fluid impoundment, 1.7 miles northwest of Hochheim. The nearest home is about 400 yards from the impoundment. A low berm around the impoundment may have prevented floodwaters from entering

Site 1. A flooded drilling site (well pad) and possibly a flooded drilling-related fluid impoundment, 1.7 miles northwest of Hochheim. The nearest home is about 400 yards from the impoundment. A low berm around the impoundment may have prevented floodwaters from entering. The operator for the wells at this site is EOG Resources, Inc.

Site 2. Four flooded drilling sites and possibly a flooded drilling-related fluid impoundment two miles west of Hochheim. A low berm around the impoundment may have prevented floodwaters from entering.

Site 2. Four flooded drilling sites and possibly a flooded drilling-related fluid impoundment two miles west of Hochheim. A low berm around the impoundment may have prevented floodwaters from entering. The operator for the wells is Burlington Resources O&G Co. LP.

Site 3. Multiple flooded drilling sites approximately 1 to 1.25 miles west of Dreyer. The color of the floodwaters here suggests a possible oil or chemical spill.

Site 3. Multiple flooded drilling sites approximately 1 to 1.25 miles west of Dreyer. The color of the flood waters here suggests a possible oil or chemical spill. The operator for the wells connected to this site is EOG Resources, Inc.

Harvey Flooded Impoundment 4

Site 4. Multiple flooded drilling sites approximately two miles southwest of Dreyer. The operator for the wells is EOG Resources, Inc.

Drilling in floodplains is a risky thing to do. Placing storage tanks and open fluid impoundments in flood zones is especially ill-advised. Reports of oil spills caused by flooded storage tanks that have floated off their foundations suggest new regulations need to be enacted to ensure tanks are firmly anchored to their foundations. We saw similar incidents after the flooding along the Colorado Front Range a couple of years ago. Operators, please tie down those tanks!  

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?

More Offshore Drilling to Come?

Once again, the federal government is proposing that we expand offshore drilling to new areas in US waters.  Today, President Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of the Interior, which manages our public lands and waters, to review the Obama administration rule that deferred oil and gas leasing along the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.  People who could be affected by new drilling in those areas should consider that it’s not just the risk of the occasional major disaster they would be facing; it’s the chronic, day-to-day pollution accompanying offshore oil development that is systematically under-reported by industry and the government, the “death by 1,000 cuts” that is so easy to ignore.

Case in point: check out last night’s slick at the site of the chronic Taylor Energy oil spill in the Gulf:

Sentinel-1 radar satellite image showing oil slick caused by a chronic leak of oil from the seafloor at the Taylor Energy site, where an oil platform was destroyed by a hurricane in 2004.  Image acquired 4/27/2017 at about 7pm local time.

This Sentinel-1 image taken on April 27, 2017 shows an oil slick covering an area of 45.5 square kilometers (km2). Our calculations assume that oil slicks observable on satellite imagery have an average thickness of at least 1 micron (one millionth of a meter), so each km2 contains at least 264 gallons of oil. Multiply that by the area of 45.5 km2 and the Taylor slick shown in this image contains at least 12,012 gallons of oil.

This site has been leaking oil continuously into the Gulf since Hurricane Ivan came through and knocked over the Taylor Energy oil platform in September.  That’s September, 2004.  You can review the history of this site and see the hundreds of spill reports received and tracked on our Taylor Chronology page here. Until something is done to stop this leak, we’ll continue to monitor the site and keep you informed.

Infrastructure Drives Development in the Brazilian Amazon: Highway –> Hydroelectric Plant –> Gold Mine

Big changes are happening in the Brazilian Amazon along a stretch of the Xingu River known as the Volta Grande (Big Bend), where it takes a detour to the south before turning back north to flow into the Amazon River. The region has experienced rapid growth and deforestation following the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway (BR 230 ) in 1972, as this pair of images illustrates:

1988:  Satellite imagery showing the Volta Grande region along the Xingu River in Brazil’s Para state. Tendrils of deforestation reveal settlement reaching out into the rainforest along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, built in 1972. Site of the future Belo Monte hydroelectric project is marked for reference. Compare with 2016 image below of the same area.

 

2016:  The same area as shown above in 1988. Considerable deforestation has occurred in the 18-year interval.

Small-scale gold mining has also occurred in this area over the past few decades, peaking in the 1980s. But now a major hydroelectric project, that became operational in 2015 and is still under construction, may be paving the way for a multinational mining company, Belo Sun of Canada, to propose a massive open-pit gold-mining operation.  Some local residents, already negatively impacted by the hydro project, are wary of the gold mining proposal: “I have seen mining companies elsewhere, they take all the wealth and leave craters. We have to think about it ten times over before accepting their projects.”

The mining operation is temporarily on hold, so there’s nothing yet to see.  But Google Earth does have high-resolution satellite imagery showing the construction of the hydroelectric project that may be a key part of the business plan for this mining project.

2014: High-resolution panchromatic (black and white) satellite imagery of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project under construction on Brazil’s Xingu River. Project became operational in 2015. Compare with 2010 image below of the same area.

 

2010: High-resolution satellite imagery showing the site of the future Belo Monte hydroelectric project. Compare with 2016 image above of same area.

As we can see from the detail below, showing a line of trucks at work on the dam in 2014, this is a huge project. And the development sequence illustrated so clearly in this area shows that one big project begets another — from highway, to hydro, to mine.

Detail from 2014 satellite imagery showing trucks at work on part of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project.

The influx of people that results is inexorably transforming the Amazon rainforest.

Into… Ohio?