Interns wanted, apply within!

Looking for something to do this spring/summer? Here at SkyTruth, we’re interviewing for (unpaid) interns to help with Gulf pollution assessment and monitoring, Marcellus Shale monitoring, mountaintop removal and other important projects. We’re looking for talented people motivated to help SkyTruth promote the cause of conservation by raising public awareness through the use of images and maps. We need help with:

  • downloading, filtering and interpreting environmental datasets
  • identifying sources of imagery
  • processing and analyzing images
  • working with Google Earth and Maps
  • GIS mapmaking
  • GIS modeling
  • digital graphics production and manipulation to generate forward-looking scenarios (like this one)
  • other research (state and federal policies, regulations, history)

If any of this sounds good to you, or if you have other ideas, please contact us with a brief description of your skills and interests. Experience in the areas of GIS and remote sensing is helpful but definitely not mandatory to intern with us. What we need is smart, dedicated and enthusiastic people who believe in our mission. So call us at 304-885-4581, email us or come visit us in the Carriage House of the Entler Hotel and work with us this year!

Shrimp Trawling Re-Suspending BP Oil?

Way back last autumn I had a nagging thought: once oil impacted areas of the Gulf were re-opened to fishing in the wake of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill, would shrimp trawlers repeatedly churn up oil that had settled on the seafloor?

Google Earth panoramic image showing sediment plumes raised by bottom-trawl fishing for shrimp along the Louisiana coast. More images here.

As the federal government proceeds with a long and complicated legal and scientific process, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, they are holding a series of public meetings to get input and comments from affected Gulf-area residents. At a meeting last week in Biloxi, Mississippi,

Vietnamese shrimpers said they have pulled up nets full of oil from the seafloor and have had to decide whether to report the oil to the Coast Guard, which would mean dumping their day’s catch, or pretend they don’t see the oil.

John Lliff, a supervisor with NOAA’s Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program, said no one knows how much of the seafloor is covered in oil.

Until the oil totally disappears, it seems highly likely that this will continue. But we don’t have a clue how long the oil will linger, or what the impacts of this would be on the health of fishermen, the recovery of the Gulf ecosystem, or the safety of seafood.

Meanwhile, some of our politicians seem to be ignoring the fact that the world’s worst accidental oil spill happened here in our own back yard less than a year ago, and are intent on returning to business as usual without assuring the public that drilling is any safer than it was last April. Does anybody else see this as a recipe for another disaster?

Shrimp Trawling Re-Suspending BP Oil?

Way back last autumn I had a nagging thought: once oil impacted areas of the Gulf were re-opened to fishing in the wake of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill, would shrimp trawlers repeatedly churn up oil that had settled on the seafloor?

Google Earth panoramic image showing sediment plumes raised by bottom-trawl fishing for shrimp along the Louisiana coast. More images here.

As the federal government proceeds with a long and complicated legal and scientific process, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, they are holding a series of public meetings to get input and comments from affected Gulf-area residents. At a meeting last week in Biloxi, Mississippi,

Vietnamese shrimpers said they have pulled up nets full of oil from the seafloor and have had to decide whether to report the oil to the Coast Guard, which would mean dumping their day’s catch, or pretend they don’t see the oil.

John Lliff, a supervisor with NOAA’s Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program, said no one knows how much of the seafloor is covered in oil.

Until the oil totally disappears, it seems highly likely that this will continue. But we don’t have a clue how long the oil will linger, or what the impacts of this would be on the health of fishermen, the recovery of the Gulf ecosystem, or the safety of seafood.

Meanwhile, some of our politicians seem to be ignoring the fact that the world’s worst accidental oil spill happened here in our own back yard less than a year ago, and are intent on returning to business as usual without assuring the public that drilling is any safer than it was last April. Does anybody else see this as a recipe for another disaster?

Offshore Drilling Safety & Transparency: Still Lacking

Here’s the latest guidance from the federal government to oil companies applying for new deepwater drilling permits. This document focuses on the two new well-containment devices rolled out last month, and mentions a new software tool BOEMRE is relying on to evaluate the risk posed by individual deepwater wells should they blow out. There is no link to the software so nobody can assess how robust it is; and, given BOEMRE’s silence on these topics, it seems likely that:

1) Neither of the well-containment devices we’re now relying on has actually been deployed and field-tested to see if it can reliably function in real Gulf deepwater conditions.

2) BOEMRE is ignoring oil spill cleanup technology, techniques and capacity, and is going forward with high-risk, high-pressure well permits in ultradeep waters far offshore, ensuring the same poor cleanup performance for the next major spill that we experienced with Exxon Valdez and the BP spill. (Recall that there could be 65 million gallons of oil spilled during the 2-3 weeks required to assemble and deploy one of the new containment devices, assuming they work perfectly on the first try.)

Assuming they actually do work, it is progress to have better well-containment options. Especially since we now know that blowout preventers – that previous bit of miracle technology we faithfully relied on – are fundamentally flawed by design, unable to reliably function at the fluid pressures and temperatures likely to be encountered in deep wells that go out of control.

But well containment is irrelevant for other risks that commonly cause major spills, like tanker accidents and intentional sabotage. Petrobras is developing their Cascade and Chinook deepwater oil and gas finds in the Gulf of Mexico using an FPSO (essentially a stationary oil tanker), the BW Pioneer, which can hold 25 million gallons. Other tankers will regularly unload crude from the Pioneer and shuttle it back to port (Galveston?). The Cascade and Chinook wells are 150 miles offshore in water 8,000-9,000 feet deep and drilled to total depth of 27,000 feet (for comparison, BP’s failed Macondo well that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig last April was just 40 miles offshore, in water 5,000 feet deep and drilled to total depth of 18,000 feet). Petrobras expects to initially produce 3.4 million gallons per day combined from its two wells. (BP’s Macondo well initially spilled 2.6 million gallons per day.)

This clip is a bit long, but Rachel Maddow got Noble Energy’s Regional Oil Spill Response Plan that accompanied their permit to resume deepwater drilling, the first permit BOEMRE approved since the BP spill. This plan should include cleanup details. The plan is dated September 2009, seven months before the BP spill, and includes no new information or plans, according to Maddow.

So how can BOEMRE express such confidence in the ability to safely and effectively respond to a worst-case spill scenario if we’re still relying on old cleanup plans that gave us scenes like this? And why is this information so difficult for us ordinary folks to come by?

Grand Isle Oil Spill – More Than 4 Gallons?

IF our analysis of the March 22, 2011 MODIS satellite image is correct, and we assume the apparent oil slick on that image is on average only 1 micron — one millionth of a meter — thick, then that roughly 2,427 km2 oil slick held at least 640,728 gallons.

That would make it a major spill (more than 100,000 gallons), and a heckuva lot more than the 4 gallons in total that was reported to the National Response Center. But not unexpected if the Anglo-Suisse well the Coast Guard has pegged as the source was actually leaking for three days (rather than 4-6 hours), as this news report suggested:

Wildlife and Fisheries officials found the source of the oil Monday evening and encountered workers in a boat trying to restore a cap on the well using a remotely operated submarine.

“Well-capping went out of control,” the state official said.

The spill was first reported to the NRC at about 8pm on Friday, March 18, three full days before the Louisiana officials came across the continuing effort to plug this well.

Coast Guard Tests “Conclusively” Point to Anglo-Suisse Well for Latest Gulf Spill

Tests of crude oil collected by the Coast Guard off Louisiana beaches last weekend, conducted by a scientist at Louisiana State University who deemed the results “conclusive,” appear to match the chemical “fingerprint” of crude oil taken from the hurricane-damaged well that Anglo-Suisse was trying to permanently plug. Anglo-Suisse is disputing this and is hiring their own lab to investigate.

If the Coast Guard’s conclusion is correct, then Anglo-Suisse grossly underreported the amount of oil that spilled from their well. They reported to the National Response Center (NRC) that only about 4 gallons were released.

This calls into question the reliability of the NRC system. The NRC is the place polluters call whenever they spill oil. Government agencies determine if a cleanup response is warranted based on the size of the spill in the report. And it’s probably the main source of data industry uses to make the claim that not much oil is spilled from offshore oil development. We see some obvious problems with this setup, including gross mismatch between the reported amounts spilled and the size of observable oil slicks.

If fines are very low (or nonexistent) for reporting a spill – and nobody from the state or federal agencies is going to come out to check up on you if you’ve reported a small spill – then you can see how companies might be tempted to systematically underreport their pollution incidents. Who wouldn’t?

With the heightened sensitivity and scrutiny in the Gulf now, maybe it’s time to reevaluate this fundamentally flawed system. Poor, or patently inaccurate, information can lead to hysteria now whenever oil appears. And that doesn’t do the oil, fishing or tourism industries any good.

Check Out Our Natural Gas & Oil Drilling Collection

Now that we’ve got our image gallery all organized and pretty, we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. We want to share our images with you and ask what you think. So without further ado, here is our biggest collection, Natural Gas and Oil Drilling. The images in this collection show the impacts of exploration, drilling, production, storage and transport of natural gas and oil. This gallery contains images of some beautiful Western landscapes too, like Valle Vidal, Raton Basin in New Mexico, shown here:

Valle Vidal

Or how about pictures from the the San Juan Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, where coalbed methane development has forever changed the landscape:

San Juan Basin coalbed methane (CBM) development

Take a look at our Upper Green River Valley, Wyoming set, then read more it in our blog posts.

Also in this collection are the Roan Plateau, Colorado set, with stunning visuals like this:

Roan Plateau, Colorado

But don’t stop there. There are 21 sets in this collection including the Pronghorn Roadkill Accident in the Jonah Gas Field of Wyoming; the Otero Mesa, in the Permian Basin of New Mexico; the Oil Sands/Oil Shale set; a simulation of proposed drilling in Grand Mesa, Colorado; and the Wyoming Range, Bridger-Teton National Forest.

There are images from the Montara Oil Spill off the coast of Australia in August of 2009, a blowout that provided us an unhappy preview of what can go wrong with offshore drilling:

Montara Oil Spill - August 25, 2009

Dirty Snow on the North Slope of Alaska:

North Slope - Winter 2006, Detail 3

And the tragic BP/Deepwater Horizon blowout in our own Gulf of Mexico almost a year ago:

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - FSU Sampling Cruise - June 22, 2010

Go check out these and many other images now at our SkyTruth Gallery. And we’ll be back with our next collection soon.