Mount Redoubt Volcano and the Drift River Oil Terminal

Maybe in retrospect it wasn’t such a great idea: storing six million gallons of crude oil next to a major waterway, just a few miles downstream from an active volcano with a recent history of explosive violence. But that’s just what the oil industry has done in the state of Alaska. The Chevron-operated Drift River Terminal, a battery of crude-oil storage tanks, sits on the western shore of Cook Inlet about 100 miles south of Anchorage, at the mouth of the Drift River. Location is everything — the terminal has a cranky neighbor just 25 miles upstream: Mount Redoubt Volcano awoke on March 22 from a geologically brief 18-year slumber, with a series of explosive blasts that sent ash towering into the sky and chaotic flows of ash, mud, ice chunks and boulders streaming down the Drift River valley (see photos of debris flows at the terminal, taken on March 23).

Redoubt erupts: March 26, 2009 photo by Bret Higman of Ground Truth Trekking

Check out SkyTruth’s gallery of images, showing the relative locations of Redoubt and the terminal, and outlining the likely path for debris-flows cascading down the volcano’s flank and following the Drift River channel to Cook Inlet. So far, several flows have reached the terminal, but there are not reports yet of any significant damage. With 6 million gallons of crude on board, let’s hope the terminal can withstand this onslaught – it’s likely that Redoubt will continue to erupt violently for months, as it last did in 1989-1990. The Cook Inletkeeper has additional resources here including a letter to the Department of Homeland Security requesting that they remove the oil from the storage facility.

Yesterday at about 9:30am (eastern time) I was on the phone with Bret Higman who lives in Seldovia, a town about 80 miles south of Redoubt, when he suddenly gave a shout – “Whoa, the volcano is erupting.” Hig grabbed several pics of the event, which sent ash 65,000 feet into the sky and more debris flows down the Drift River toward the oil terminal.

UPDATE 4/15/09: NASA’s Advanced Land Imager captured a stunning view of erupting Mount Redoubt with a long plume of airborne ash streaming to the southeast across Cook Inlet. The image also clearly shows multiple lahars that have flowed down the Drift River valley and around the oil terminal, with some reaching Cook Inlet. We’ve created two posters from this image (11″x15″ at 200dpi) – an overview showing the volcano and the terminal, and a cloesup detail view of the terminal.

UPDATE 9/15/09: In response to a comment, it’s not 20/20 hindsight to say this terminal is located in a high-risk area, since the last major eruption in 1990 generated a mudflow that overtopped the berm and entered the storage tank facility. That was a clear warning shot from Mother Nature. We’ve decided to ignore it and carry on as usual. If I made my living as a fisherman in Cook Inlet, I’d be pretty concerned about that.

Urban Growth: Las Vegas 1984-2009

Not everything that happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas: the city has seriously bulked up in recent decades, something that is very obvious from space. In honor of the Landsat-5 satellite’s jaw-dropping 25th year of operation, NASA has released images taken from 1984 to 2009. The population of Clark County, home of Las Vegas, quadrupled during that time from 463,000 in 1980 to just over 2 million this year.

We used the NASA imagery to generate a time-series of images showing this growth. Another notable feature in the images is the sharp drop in water level in Lake Mead, one of the most important reservoirs on the Colorado River. The rapid population growth in the Colorado basin is colliding with an ongoing drought, and increasing use of water for oil and gas drilling. The development of oil shale — an ongoing controvery — would divert large amounts of water out of the Colorado River system (see a report on projected energy development (including oil shale) and water demands issued by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and a factsheet on oil shale development and water use from the U.S. Department of Energy).

UPDATE 3/17/09: Western Resource Advocates issued a report today called “Water on the Rocks,” taking a look at the water rights in Colorado that are currently held by companies interested in oil-shale production, and the potential water use that oil-shale production would entail.

UPDATE 6/16/09: Our friends at EcoFlight have uploaded a gallery of photos of Lake Powell, from an overflight on April 30, showing the striking white “bathtub ring” that indicates how far water levels in the reservoir have dropped in recent years. Here’s a good one:

Photo courtesy of EcoFlight – Copyright 2009, all rights reserved.

Hurricane Ike – Collateral Damage?

A 900-foot oil tanker carrying 41 million gallons of crude oil from the North Sea is in trouble in the northern Gulf of Mexico, about 65 miles from its final destination of Galveston, Texas. The SKS Satilla is listing because three of its ballast tanks were punctured. Nobody is sure yet what caused this sudden and mysterious damage, but coincidentally the submerged wreck of a drilling platform that had been missing since Hurricane Ike last year was just discovered near the crippled tanker. Current speculation is the tanker collided with the submerged ruins. Crews are working to transfer the crude from the tanker to other vessels.

This is yet another reminder that offshore oil and gas drilling, even with all of today’s advanced technology, remains a risky business. The mobile offshore drilling unit that went missing is one of several drilling rigs that were lost or set adrift nearly six months ago by the relatively moderate Hurricane Ike, a Category 3 storm. This particular rig was the ENSCO 74, a relatively new (built in 1999) jack-up owned by Ensco International. It’s very fortunate that the cargo hold of the tanker was not breached — the Satilla, less than three years old, has a double hull. Has that saved the Gulf Coast from a massive oil spill?

This time the Gulf got lucky. But not all tankers in US waters have double hulls yet, and sometimes even that is not enough. Remember that in November 2005 a barge carrying heavy fuel oil hit the submerged wreck of an offshore oil platform that had been destroyed several weeks earlier by Hurricane Rita, a monster Category 5 storm. The Coast Guard reports that nearly 3 million gallons of heavy oil were spilled into the Gulf in that incident. See the final paragraph of the USCG Katrina-Rita damage summary.

These incidents are stark reminders of the risk that still accompanies offshore oil and gas development, particularly from the associated facilities and other infrastructure — both onshore and offshore — that are necessary to support drilling and production.

Athabasca Tar Sands – No Day At The Beach

National Geographic’s latest issue has a timely article on the massive tar-sands mining operation that is chewing up large swaths of boreal forest in Alberta, Canada. It’s accompanied by a stunning online photo gallery and video. This heavy-oil extraction process ranks right up there with mountaintop removal mining as one of the truly apocalyptic things we’re doing to the planet. And truly un-fixable, unless we wait for a few million years of plate tectonics to clean up after us.

SkyTruth has produced satellite images showing the scope of this operation, and how fast it’s grown since the early 1990s. Check out our latest Flickr image gallery.