Real Time Evidence Leads Government of Belize to Reverse Decision

Large, heavy ships are slow to turn around, and so is environmental degradation once it gets going. But last week, public outcry sent a seismic survey vessel packing and halted the first nascent steps of an oil exploration program off the coast of Belize.

Armed with aerial photos and satellite-derived vessel tracks, Belizeans rallied to convince their government to suspend seismic surveying operation just one day after it began. Their protests stand on two premises. One: no environmental impact studies have been conducted. And two: in December 2015, the Government of Belize agreed to ban offshore oil exploration in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the second largest barrier reef in the world and a UNESCO Heritage site.

Despite these facts, on October 12th, Oceana Belize discovered that seismic testing had been approved for offshore and was intended to take place less than one mile from the reef. Used in deep-sea oil exploration, seismic surveys shoot powerful sonic waves into the water to gauge the geological resources held in the rock layers beneath the seafloor. The shock waves are not only powerful enough to penetrate the seabed, but they travel thousands of miles through the water causing damage to whales, dolphins and manatees as well as scaring fish from important habitats and killing their eggs and larvae.

On Monday, October 17th, SeaBird exploration, the company contracted to conduct the survey, announced that their ship, the Northern Explorer, would begin seismic blast surveys in Belize waters. The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage called for the Government to stay the decision to allow seismic testing and to open discussions with the Belizean people, more than 190,000 of whom are economically dependent on the reef’s resources.

The very next day, Oceana posted video and photos on Facebook showing the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize with its seismic array already deployed. Jackie Savitz, Oceana’s Vice President for the US and Global Fishing Watch, also reached out to SkyTruth for assistance tracking the vessel’s activities.

SkyTruth’s analyst Bjorn Bergman verified the Northern Explorer’s track based on signals from the vessel’s Automatic Identification System. He sent Oceana images of the track as it traversed an area of ocean around the barrier reef.

Track of the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize

Track of the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize

In combination with photos and videos, the satellite tracks served as a powerful motivator on social media and helped galvanize opposition to the survey operation. “SkyTruth got us the real-time information, which is what we needed to make timely decisions,” Savitz says, “and to communicate with the government to make sure they understood that we knew what was happening.”

On October 20, two days after the ship began operations, the government of Belize issued a stop work order and published the following statement:

Based on multiple concerns raised by concerned citizens regarding the seismic survey currently being conducted in the deep offshore of Belize as well as the fact that extensive consultation with a wider ground of stakeholders did not occur prior the commencement of the survey, the Government of Belize (GOB) has decided that it will suspend seismic operations until such consultations can be conducted. Accordingly, the Geology and Petroleum Department will inform the ship that they are to cease seismic operations immediately.

That same day, SeaBird exploration announced that they were returning their vessel to port to prepare to leave Belize. “The fact that the Belizean government stopped the seismic blasting when the public was informed is a classic example of how transparency can actually lead to improved ocean conservation,” says Savitz.

 

Impact Story: Chevron Spill May Have Reset the Tone for Oil Boom in Brazil

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2011 turned out to be both a banner year for Brazilian oil exploration and a big eye-opener for the people of Brazil. Fueled by the discovery of 19 new oil and gas reserves and hungry for the spoils, big multi-national companies poured billions of new investment dollars into the South American nation.

Most Brazilians expressed little concern over the potential safety risks of the offshore boom. But then SkyTruth president John Amos noticed an inconspicuous report of a seemingly insignificant oil leak buried in the daily cycle of business news.

On November 8, 2011, Reuters reported that Brazil’s oil regulator, the National Petroleum Agency (ANP), was investigating an offshore oil leak near Chevron’s Frade field, 230 miles from the coast of Rio de Janeiro. According to the report, Chevron was checking to see if oil was leaking from a crack in the seafloor.

When John reviewed satellite photos of the area, he saw a slick originating near an exploratory drilling site that extended for 35 miles and covered about 180 square kilometers. By his estimates the sheen on the water represented about 47,000 gallons of oil.

Three days later it had grown to 56 miles in length, and Chevron had declared it a natural seep unrelated to their drilling activities. “It is possible, but call us skeptical,” John posted on our blog. “From my previous years working as an exploration geologist I know there are natural seeps off Brazil. But I’ve never seen a natural seep create a slick this large on a satellite image.” What’s more, comparisons with historical satellite photos showed the slick had not been there before.

Over the following days we watched the spread of oil on the water’s surface. While Chevron maintained that it was natural and estimated a leak rate of 8,400 to 13,860 gallons (200 -330 barrels) per day, John posted satellite images that hinted at a much bigger problem. By his analysis the spill was leaking 157,000 gallons (3,700 barrels) per day. That was more than ten times the official estimate.

John’s reports and the indisputable images he posted gained international media attention,  spurred a vigorous discussion on our site, and led to a public outcry in Brazil.

Unable to hide the true nature of the spill, Chevron came under scrutiny from Brazilian legislators and state agencies, and the tone of their official story began to shift.

Under pressure for more transparency, the oil and gas giant eventually conceded they had lost control of a well. They claimed the pressure of the reservoir had exceeded their expectations and forced oil up through fissures in the seafloor.

Kerick Leite who was working for ANP in offshore inspections at the time reflects on the situation this way: “In my opinion, if were not for SkyTruth’s independent assessment of the spill existence and size, I believe the Chevron Spill would have been dismissed as a minor one,” says Leite, “maybe even a natural seep, as initially reported, and remain mostly unknown by the public even today.”

According to the New York Times, Brazil’s former environment minister, Marina Silva, said “This event is a three-dimensional alert to the problems that may occur.” She told the Times that the spill served as a warning just as Brazil was preparing to expand its oil production and exploit its tremendously rich presalt reserves—an extremely complicated process because the presalt lies in 10,000 feet of water beneath thick layers of sand, salt and rock.

As a result of the spill and Chevron’s misleading response, the ANP banned the company from all drilling activities in Brazil onshore and off, pending a full investigation. After lengthy court battles, the company ended up paying  24 violations, and the company paying $17 million in fines to the ANP, more than $18 million to the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, and $42 million to settle civil lawsuits.

What’s more, it emphasized how small the playing field is in the deepwater oil and gas drilling industry. As we learned through our Twitter followers, the drilling contractor on the job had been Transocean—the same company involved in the disastrous BP / Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico just a year earlier. Brazil dodged a bullet with this accident, but the new understanding of how bad it might have been made Brazilians pay attention.

“It was a wake-up call,” said John. “These are multi-national organizations. The same contractors are working for most of the major name-brand oil companies. This kind of thing can happen anywhere.” Chevron’s reluctance to claim culpability and their delayed response to the spill drove home the need for diligence in regulation and enforcement by Brazilian authorities.

Leite said the spill has led to increased public awareness and concern over safety in the oil and gas industry in Brazil that persists today. “I believe the issue of offshore safety now has more priority than before the chevron spill,” he says. “Back when I still worked at the ANP sector dedicated to environmental issues and operational safety, it had around 16 to 18 servants. Today there are around 40 servants dedicated to it.”

It was a full year before Chevron was allowed to resume doing business Brazil. During that time, a significant portion of the company’s global investments remained inaccessible to them. We hope the loss of profits, over and above the fines levied by Brazilian authorities, will provide incentives for Chevron to do a better job and will send a message to other oil and gas companies. Accidents can no longer be hidden or brushed aside. Chevron’s Frade field spill demonstrated that a satellite image can be worth a thousand words — and in this case, millions of dollars.

 

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.”

Oil Spill Response Is A Joke

But not a very funny joke:

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Skimmer vessel working at Shell oil slick in Gulf of Mexico, May 15, 2016. Photo courtesy Dr. Ian MacDonald / Bonny Schumaker – On Wings of Care / EcoGig-2

Thank you, Shell, for demonstrating quite convincingly over the past 4 days that oil spill cleanup is nothing more than a convenient fantasy.  At about 11am local time last Thursday, Shell reported about 90,000 gallons of oil leaked from a pipeline 90 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico in the Glider field, one of their recent cutting-edge deepwater developments in water 3,400′ deep.  Oil from wells in the Glider field flows through a single pipeline to the Brutus tension-leg platform (TLP) about 7 miles away.  Apparently this innovative “cost-effective flow assurance method” sprang a leak.  Here are a few unfortunate things we’ve learned from this:

Pipeline leak detection is unreliable.  This spill was discovered accidentally by a helicopter pilot flying over the area who happened to spot the slick.  That’s right: a modern pipeline at a high-tech deepwater development project leaked thousands of gallons of oil, and that leak was accidentally discovered.  Not because high-tech telemetry on the pipeline signaled an alarm due to a drop in pressure; not because flow metering detected a difference between what was going in one end of the pipe vs. what was coming out the other.  How long would this leak have continued, if not for the sheer luck of having a vigilant pilot happening by? 

Oil spill response vessels grossly underperform. As of yesterday, 5 spill response vessels (4 oil skimming vessels and a work boat named the Harvey Express) were dispatched to tackle the slick as it drifted steadily west away from the source of the spill in Green Canyon lease block 248.  The first to arrive, a fast-response boat named the H.I. Rich, showed up about 11pm Thursday. Two other skimmers, Deep Blue Responder and  Louisiana Responder, arrived at 2am and 3am on Friday morning, May 13. The last one to the party, Mississippi Responder, took 26 hours to make it out to the slick, arriving at 11pm on the 13th. By that time the slick had drifted more than 30 miles away from the Glider field.

These skimmer vessels are rated to remove thousands of barrels of oily water per day: 12,500 bpd for the H.I. Rich, and a combined 39,220 bpd for the others.  At 42 gallons per barrel, that’s a total capacity of more than 2 million gallons per day for these 4 vessels.  Sounds pretty good, huh?  By noon on Sunday, based on the arrival times of the skimmer vessels that we tracked using their AIS broadcasts, more than 6 million gallons should have been collected and this 90,000 gallon oil spill should have been long gone.  

Yet on Sunday the Coast Guard reported only 50,000 gallons of “an oily-water mixture” had been recovered.  Video taken Sunday during an overflight by Dr. Ian MacDonald of Florida State University with pilot Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care shows thick stringers of emulsified oil in a slick several miles long, similar to what Greenpeace (pics) and our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partner Jonathan Henderson (video) encountered on Saturday.  Dr. MacDonald observed that the response vessels seemed to be missing the thickest parts of the slick and were generally making very little headway, despite operating under fairly calm conditions (average wind speed of 7 knots recorded at Brutus TLP over this time period), nearly ideal for oil cleanup operations.  
 

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AIS tracking map showing locations of spill-response vessels this morning (May 16). Data courtesy exactEarth/ShipView.

Federal permits for deepwater drilling rely on wishful thinking. Since the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill, companies applying to the federal government for permission to drill in our public waters are required to calculate a worst-case scenario oil spill should they, for example, lose all control of a well as BP did in 2010.  Then they must present a response plan that asserts they have the capacity and ability to adequately respond to that spill. The most recent plan [warning: humongous, unwieldy PDF file] for Green Canyon block 248, dating from 2013, envisions a worst-case spill averaging 15.3 MILLION gallons of oil per day — every day — for up to 92 days

The response plans to match these massive potential spills rely on oil skimmers performing at their rated capacity.  Yet by noon Sunday, after two full days of cleanup response with four of these vessels and 130 workers,  only 50,000 gallons of oil and (mostly) water had been recovered, possibly even worse than the performance of an older generation of skimmers during the BP spill in 2010.  Once again we see that in the real world, these vessels don’t perform anywhere near as well as they do in the fantasy world of offshore drilling regulation.

The upshot?  Our government is indulging in a troubling fantasy that is eagerly abetted by the oil industry and pro-drilling politicians, dressing up deepwater offshore drilling as a safe operation so they can continue to rubber-stamp permit applications that contain laughable oil-spill response plans.  But as Shell just demonstrated, this emperor has no clothes.  When will our government and the global oil industry wake up to this reality and get serious about oil spill response?  If the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill wasn’t a disaster big and costly enough to provoke a serious overhaul, then what will it take?  

On Thursday, The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on Capitol Hill to critique the federal government’s offshore oil and gas leasing program.  Expect to see pro-drilling politicians taking this opportunity to pound their fists and wag their fingers at government officials for not doing enough to accelerate the pace of offshore oil drilling.  You might even see a few unicorns and fairies sitting up on stage behind the politicians, nodding in agreement.  

Will Taylor Energy Response Offer Any New Answers?

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Undated photo of Taylor Energy Platform #23051 before it was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Image Credit – Taylor Energy
Today, Jan. 20, Taylor Energy will host a public forum in Baton Rouge, La., to explain what efforts they have taken to respond to the ongoing oil spill in Mississippi Canyon Block 20 (MC-20) – the former site of Taylor Energy Platform #23051. Over eleven years ago Hurricane Ivan triggered a subsea landslide which destroyed the platform and buried 28 wells under a hundred or more feet of mud and sediment. The spill first came to public attention during the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, when GMC charter member SkyTruth observed the leak on satellite imagery and began investigating with GMC assets in the air and on the surface.

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Above: Landsat 8 image from June 2014; one many satellite observations SkyTruth has catalogued over the past eleven years. 
 

Oil still leaks from the site to this day, eleven miles off the coast of Louisiana, while the now-idled company’s efforts to stop the leak have remained a carefully guarded secret. In early 2015, an AP investigation pressed the U.S. Coast Guard to increase their estimated spill rate to an amount 20x higher than Taylor had ever acknowledged. In Sept. 2015, GMC partners, including the Waterkeeper Alliance, settled a law suit over the company’s lack of transparency about efforts to fix the leak. This forum was a condition of that settlement.

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium has the following questions for Taylor Energy, which, in one presentation posted in advance to the forum’s website called the events surrounding Hurricane Ivan, an “Act of God“.

1) What is the plan to stop this leak?

2) If the plan is to just let it go for the next 100 years, what research has been done to determine that the environmental harm would be minimal and acceptable? Why wasn’t the public involved in that decision making?

3) What lessons were learned and are they being applied to new permitting and drilling in the Gulf?

  • What do we know about slope stability and the risk of slope failure throughout the Gulf, especially in deepwater; and is that risk being incorporated into engineering and permitting?
  • What is the plan if a similar fate befalls a deepwater platform with 20 high-pressure producing oil wells?
  • What systems are in place to successfully shut in those wells in the event of a slope failure?

4) What is the estimated cost to the public of the lost oil and gas revenue if the decision is made to let the reservoir bleed out?

5) What were the various interventions that were deployed on the seafloor to try to capture the leaking oil and gas? How much oil and gas did they capture, and during what time periods? What was done with the captured oil and gas?

To attend, the public is asked to register.

LOCATION:Louisiana State University
Pennington Biomedical Research Center
Building “G”
6400 Perkins Rd
Baton Rouge, LA 70808 

DATE & TIME:9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
January 20, 2016

Oil Slicks Significantly Diminished at SOCAR #10

SkyTruth has been tracking a fire and oil spill in the Caspian Sea from an aging platform operated by SOCAR, the Azerbaijani state-owned oil company. However, an image collected yesterday (Dec. 20) by Sentinel 1A, a radar satellite operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows that the 357 square kilometer oil slick observed on Dec. 13 has mostly dissipated.

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At this point, the slick observed coming from the damaged platform is 6-8 kilometers long, but without substantial width. This is a significant decrease from the slick observed on the 13th, which according to our calculations amounted to more than 90,000 gallons of oil. However, the area is not completely in the clear as oil spills are business as usual from aging infrastructure like Neft Daşları, a mega-platform built by Soviet Engineers in 1949.

Nevertheless, the fire was still burning today, as evidenced by the heat signature visible on the 7-2-1 band combination from MODIS. The imagery from Dec. 21 is cloud-obscured, but the image from Dec. 19 offers a clearer view (below).

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Truth Elusive as Oil Slicks Spread in Caspian Sea

Last week we reported that heavy seas and high winds in the Caspian Sea were suspected to be the cause of a fatal accident at the SOCAR #10 Platform in the Caspian Sea. The platform is operated by SOCAR, the Azerbaijani state oil company, and is located in the Gunashli oil field approximately 65 miles ESE of Baku, Azerbaijan. Based on two radar satellite images collected since the fire began on December 4, we estimate that least 95,000 gallons of oil have been spilled into the Caspian Sea.

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Above: The most recent image of the Gunashli oilfield reveals a 357 square kilometer oil slick. The image was collected on Dec. 13 by Sentinel 1A,, a radar satellite operated by the European Space Agency (ESA).


The slick has moved to the north since the first satellite image was collected on Dec. 7. After analyzing that first image, we identified a 192 sq. km oil slick, which we estimated contained 50,000 gallons of oilLooking at low-resolution daily imagery from NASA, we last saw a major smoke plume from the site on Dec. 8, but continued to see a heat signature on the 7-2-1 band imagery from Dec. 12 and Dec. 15. The site has been obscured by clouds from Dec. 15 to the present.    

News from Azerbaijan is, at best, hard to come by; at worst, downright contradictory. Since the disaster SOCAR has only issued two press releases on the subject in English, the most recent of which from Dec. 11 emphatically states that, “During the monitoring no signs of oil spills have been observed at the accident area.” On Dec. 16th (or 17th, the timestamps don’t match up), SOCAR has issued a press release in Azeri, and while we aren’t fluent in Azeri, regional media reports confirm that SOCAR is sticking to their story

 
Even more intriguing are seemingly conflicting reports from local news website Ozu.az. The Russian language version of the article appears to accurately report the 300+ sq. km oil spill observed by Sentinel 1A, including a wide-frame satellite image of the smoke plume. Meanwhile the Azeri language version of the article, posted a mere 41 minutes after the Russian version went up, seems to be largely copied-and-pasted from the SOCAR press release, contains no image of the spill site, and does not appear to mention anything about Sentinel 1A or the 300 sq. km. oil spill. 
 

Again, we’re not fluent or even conversant in Azeri (and only partially in Russian), so please check out the articles side-by-side and let us know what you think in the comments. 

One thing is certain, the storm which caused this disaster was certainly a major weather event. Satellite-based sea-surface scatterometry shows the winds on Dec. 4th exceeded 40 knots (46 MPH) in the Gunashli oilfield. 

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Combined with the relatively shallow depth of the oilfield (100-400 meters), it is not a surprise that this storm kicked up massive waves. Nearby, at the aging offshore settlement of Neft Daşları (the “Oil Rocks”), three workers were killed in a separate accident on the very same day (Dec. 4) when their living quarters “fell into the sea” (see also press release from SOCAR). The search continues for workers from Platform #10 who are still missing after their lifeboat was reported to have prematurely dropped from the burning platform into the raging sea.

We will continue to track this story and available satellite imagery.

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