Good News for Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front

Too special to drill: panoramic satellite view looking south across the Badger-Two Medicine area. Click for larger version.

A big tip o’ my hat today to five energy companies that voluntarily relinquished 8 oil and gas leases covering nearly 30,000 acres of the spectacular Badger-Two Medicine area of Lewis and Clark National forest on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. There are no producing oil or gas wells on any of these leases.

Occidental Petroleum, Williams Cos., Rosewood Resources, XTO Energy and BP received no compensation for giving up their rights to drill in these areas, which they had originally leased from the federal government in 1982. The lands are now permanently protected from oil and gas leasing under a 2006 federal law authored by Montana Senator Max Baucus.

Take a look at what has been returned to the American public – if you like to hike, camp, climb, hunt or fish, plan a trip to the Front to celebrate:


Protected from drilling: Badger Creek and Badger-Two Medicine area of the Rocky Mountain Front, Montana. Photo by Tony Bynum.

Conservationists, ranchers, Native Americans and sportsmen’s groups – including The Wilderness Society, Blackfeet Nation, Trout Unlimited, Montana Wilderness Association and Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front – have worked for years to return all of the leased areas along the Front to public control.
29 leases covering another 40,000 acres in the Badger-Two Medicine area are still in private hands. None of these areas are producing any oil or gas.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Questions Remain

Permanent plugs have successfully been installed and pressure-tested in the notorious H1 well that blew out on August 21, 2009, in the Timor Sea and spewed oil and gas for 71 days. Some information is now trickling out as the Australian government investigates the causes and consequences of the Montara / West Atlas blowout and ten-week oil spill. News accounts have focused on the drilling contractor’s apparent failure to install a basic piece of safety equipment called a corrosion cap. This seems like a serious mistake for a major offshore drilling contractor like Seadrill. But we’re not yet sure that the lack of this cap could, on its own, cause the well to blow out.

Upstream’s coverage provides the most technical detail. Apparently there was an existing weakness in the well due to a poor cementing job. Ho hum, cement…but as they say, the devil is in the details…so bone up on well drilling (especially the section on cementing) before you go much further:

the source of the flow was in the 244 millimetre casing and the most likely cause of that was a channel in the cement in the shoe track casing

This article also raises a lot of questions. It states that in August PTTEP determined no corrosion cap had been installed when the H1 well was suspended in March. Yet on August 20, “the corrosion cap was removed” to “clean corroded casing threads,” the cap “was not reinstalled,” and the well blew out the next day:

  • Does this mean that Seadrill actually had installed a pressure cap on the H1 well?
    • If so, when exactly did that happen?
  • Was the removal of that cap to “clean corroded casing threads” unusual, or is that a common thing to do?
    • If common, what are the safety procedures during this operation, and were they being followed?
  • Was Seadrill (or some other contractor?) doing that work on the H1 well at the same time they were actively drilling a new well at the platform, as initially reported?
    • If so, is that allowed, and does it conform with industry standard practice?
  • What has been done to suspend or abandon the well that Seadrill had been drilling when the H1 blowout occurred?
  • What will be done with the other suspended wells and the Montara platform structure?
  • Why was the bulk of the fire centered on the West Atlas rig, rather than on the Montara platform? Check out the pictures and spectacular video.
    • This suggests to me that the well that was being drilled is the one that ignited, rather than the H1 well. If so, why?

Wonky stuff, for sure. But it’s important to get all of these questions asked, and answered, before the government closes the books on this investigation, so we can be sure we know what really happened.

Meanwhile, another tropical cyclone is making a Montara drive-by. This time it’s Magda, a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 60-70 knots. On January 21 at 0:50 hours Zulu time, this MODIS Terra satellite image showed the eye of Magda to be about 186 km southwest of the Montara oil platform. The storm is moving almost directly south, and should not pose a threat to operations as crews are now assessing the structural integrity of the fire-damaged platform.

Haiti Earthquake – Oil Spill

We’ve done some followup work on the oil spill seen on post-quake satellite imagery of western Port-au-Prince. Frankly, this is the least of their worries: the spill looks significant but based on the shape and distribution of the slicks we interpret this to be a short-lived episode, not an ongoing spill like the recent Timor Sea event off Australia.

We’ve identified a couple of sites where oil storage tanks appear to have been damaged and leaked; it’s not clear if these tanks are the source of the oil slicks. See for yourself – we’ve posted everything in a gallery. You can also access the high-resolution Geoeye satellite images via Google Earth through Google’s website or by downloading their KML file.

Haiti Earthquake – Before / After Comparisons, Oil Spill, Collaborative Map Effort

Geoeye has also published high-resolution post-quake imagery of Port-au-Prince. The images were taken on the morning of January 13, 2010. In Google Earth, you can toggle between those images and pre-quake hi-res images that were shot in March 2008, allowing direct comparison and rapid visual assessment of the damage.

SkyTruth looked at the area around the cathedral, and did this quick visual analysis and mapping of damaged and destroyed buildings in the vicinity:

Pre-quake image, March 2008 (cathedral is large cross-shaped building at center). Click image for big version.

Post-quake image, January 13, 2010. Cathedral roof has collapsed, several adjacent buildings also visibly damaged. Click image for big version.

Visual identification of damaged structures (orange) based on image comparison. Click image for big version.

There’s also a large oil slick on the west side of the city near an area of oil storage tanks (we found out about this while watching The Weather Channel late last night). Some of the tanks appear to be damaged, and have spilled oil into the containment areas that surround them. It’s possible some of this oil overtopped or breached the containment berms and flowed into the sea. It’s also possible that one or more oil pipelines along the shore was broken during the quake. From the configuration of the slicks, it appears the leaks were sudden, substantial, and short-lived:

Oil slick on west side of Port-au-Prince, January 13, 2010. Click image for big version.

Google has also established a public collaborative Haiti mapping project, asking folks who know Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area to help populate the map with important and helpful features. I assume these would be the identification of specific buildings (especially public buildings like schools, hospitals and clinics, theaters or other gathering spots) and anything else you think might be helpful to responders. Go here if you want to share your knowledge of the area to help this massive relief effort.

Earthquake Disaster in Haiti: Free Hi-Res Satellite Images

The magnitude of the catastrophe in Haiti is hard to grasp. We’re heartened that Digital Globe is making high-resolution satellite images available for free until January 28. You’ve got to be using standard GIS software (from ESRI, MapInfo, or Autodesk) to get the data.

Earthquake damage to cathedral (center) and nearby structures in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

For those without GIS software, you can still view post-quake images showing the damage at DigitalGlobe’s gallery. They’ve also done a simple visual damage assessment, which you can download as a PDF file here.

High-resolution images are useful for gross damage assessment and for logistics. We hope relief organizations take advantage of this to facilitate their operations, and we hope some of the other satellite image vendors follow suit. It’s going to be a long haul, and the work of many nations, to help Haiti recover from this disaster.

UPDATE 1/15/10: DigitalGlobe is now making their imagery available to Google Earth users as a KML file. Click here to access the KML. I’ve just tried it – the KML is pretty rough, but I expect it will be improved.