Michigan Pipeline Spill – A Warning Shot

Turns out the pipeline that failed in Michigan last week, spilling a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River that’s still threatening to reach Lake Michigan, was installed in 1969. Still no word on why it failed but corrosion is a constant battle for pipeline operators like Enbridge.

Like who?

Most oil, gas, and refined-products pipeline, onshore and offshore, is owned and operated by companies you’ve probably never heard of (without the brand name or deep pockets of a company like BP or Exxon). Enbridge is a Canadian company that claims to operate the world’s largest pipeline network – 15,000 miles of pipe in the US and Canada. They also have a rap sheet of recent, major spills and fatal incidents (although we don’t know if their record is any worse than most other pipeline operators).

Active oil and gas pipelines in the US Gulf of Mexico. Data from US Minerals Management Service (downloaded March 25, 2009).

There are about 25,000 miles of active oil and gas pipeline on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico, connecting 3600 platforms and tens of thousands of wells to coastal storage, processing and distribution facilities. Much of this infrastructure is getting old – drilling began offshore in the Gulf in the 1940s. Are pipeline operators doing a better job inspecting, maintaining and replacing the pipes offshore than they are onshore?

Keeping an independent eye on this vast, aging infrastructure is yet another reason we think Gulf-wide satellite monitoring should be a routine activity, not a service limited only to emergencies like the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill.

Barataria Bay, Louisiana – Abandoned Well Blowout

A few days ago we mentioned this small oil spill in the coastal wetlands of the Gulf that is unrelated to the big BP / Deepwater Horizon spill: on July 27, 2010, an abandoned well in Barataria Bay, Louisiana was hit by a barge and blew out. It’s been spewing a 100-foot-high geyser of natural gas and light crude oil since then, and the Coast Guard has reported that it may not be plugged for another week.

TSX radar satellite image of Barataria Bay blowout and spill, August 1, 2010. Image courtesy CSTARS.

This image from Germany’s TerraSAR-X radar satellite was acquired at 7:08 am Central time on August 1, and shows the oil being spilled (black areas) from this ongoing incident. We got the well location (yellow dot) from NOAA’s Incident News report for this spill.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill – How Big?

The Macondo well is still tightly capped; the “static kill” effort to shut it down by pumping mud, then cement, into the well through the containment cap may begin as soon as tonight. This would be followed up by a “bottom kill” procedure, hopefully in August, that would use a relief well to pump more cement into the well at a point about 13,000′ below the seafloor.

So, folks are asking – just how big was this spill?

Big enough to – at one time or another – cover 68,000 square miles of Gulf waters with oil slick or sheen, based on our ongoing analysis of satellite images. But that’s just the part we could see at the surface. Lots of oil remained in the water column, beneath the surface, out of sight on the satellite images we’ve been able to acquire.

The Washington Post published a calculation on July 29 (article and useful graphic) that as much as 218 million gallons (5.2 million barrels) leaked out of the well over the duration of the spill from April 20 – July 15. That assumes the government team’s high-end leak rate estimate of 2.52 million gallons (60,000 barrels) per day for 87 days. Subtracting 33.6 million gallons (800,000 barrels) the Coast Guard and BP claim to have kept out of the water — by siphoning oil directly from the leaking well — yields a high-end spill estimate of 184.4 million gallons (4.4 million barrels).

SkyTruth’s estimate on May 1 that the well was gushing at a rate of at least 1.1 million gallons (26,500 barrels) per day turned out to be on the low end of the later scientific estimates made by the government-assembled Flow Rate Technical Group. Our conservative number generates a total flow of 96.8 million gallons (2.3 million barrels) from the leaking well over 87 days. Subtracting the 33.6 million gallons supposedly diverted from the leaking well – we have no way to confirm that number – yields a low-end total spill estimate of 63.2 million gallons (1.5 million barrels) directly into Gulf waters.

How does this compare with our previous sad benchmark, the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989? The official estimate — a number that, we should note, is disputed as being far too small — is that 11 million gallons were spilled when the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

That would make the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf anywhere from 6 to 17 times as large as the official Exxon Valdez spill. But don’t lock these numbers in just yet: they may change as the investigation proceeds and new information is brought to light in coming months.

We’ll have to work hard, and stay on guard, to make sure this is one sorry new record that will never be broken.

Twitter – No Joy

Just a note to our Twitter followers – we’ve been unable to send any new tweets for 3 days, and haven’t heard back from their tech support folks. We’re trying to figure out the problem, but it is vexing…

UPDATE 8/2/10 9am – still can’t access my home page on Twitter. No word from tech support. But hey, you get what you pay for, right?