Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico Last Weekend – Questions Remain

Still trying to pin down exactly what happened in the Gulf last weekend. The Coast Guard has reported that a well south of Grand Isle that was being plugged and abandoned leaked on Saturday for 4-6 hours for some reason, with oil showing up on the beaches of Grand Isle, Elmer’s Island and Fourchon. Cleanup is continuing although no new oil is washing ashore. [UPDATE 5:56pm – see pics of oil coming ashore].

Locations of interest mentioned in this post. Active oil and gas platforms are orange dots. Backdrop is MODIS satellite image taken March 19, 2011.

We’ve looked at low-resolution MODIS satellite images of the Gulf over the past few days and haven’t seen any signs of a large oil slick, although this aerial pic that was reportedly taken by the Jefferson Parish Department of Emergency Management appears to show a sizable oil slick, with relatively thick brownish-red stringers of weathered crude oil surrounded by thinner sheen. MODIS images aren’t always suitable for oil slick detection, so we’re still looking. At this time, yesterday’s images are mostly incomplete and don’t fully cover the affected area.

This morning we called the Coast Guard public affairs office in Louisiana to ask a simple question: where is this well located? The answer: “that is under investigation.” They couldn’t tell us the name of the platform, who the operator is, or even what protraction area it is in.

Some possibilities have been mentioned in various press accounts. This report claims the leaking well is at a hurricane-damaged platform operated by Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners, LLC. A 2006 news release from the former U.S. Minerals Management Service shows that Anglo-Suisse had a cluster of five platforms in West Delta Block 117, about 30 miles southeast of Grand Isle, that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Maybe the well was under one of those now long-gone platforms. That’s our bet: it’s close to Grand Isle, and satellite pics of the past few days show currents are sweeping masses of sediment-laden water from the Mississippi River through the West Delta 117 area and straight toward the beach. Any spilled oil at that location would most likely get caught up in that current.

But other reports hinted at problems at the site of the Matterhorn SeaStar platform, a state-of-the-art “mini Tension Leg Platform” owned by W&T Offshore, whose stock prices nosedived Friday. W&T issued this statement today claiming the the slick is not coming from Matterhorn or any of their other nearby facilities. The TLP was installed in 2003, in water 2800′ deep, in Mississippi Canyon Block 243 about 28 miles due west of the BP / Deepwater Horizon site and 80 miles east-southeast of Grand Isle.

Another possibility, not mentioned in any news accounts we’ve seen, is the platform that caught fire on March 6 and was evacuated. Located in Grand Isle Block 102, it’s about 50 miles due south of Grand Isle.

Meanwhile, oil is continually leaking from the site of a Taylor Energy platform (Platform 23051) that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan way back in 2004, and the Ocean Saratoga rig is back on site working to plug the leaks. You may recall we “discovered” that chronic leak during the massive BP spill last summer. Here’s a pic that Greenpeace took on Sunday of the oil slick there:

Photo of oil slick from chronic, ongoing leak at former site of Taylor Energy platform destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Ocean Saratoga drill rig is working to plug the leaks.

Lots of questions. Here’s one more: In the wake of the world’s worst accidental oil spill, can’t we manage our offshore resources better than this?

Third Deepwater Drilling Permit Issued for Gulf – Still No Spill Response Info

Third time’s definitely not the charm. BOEMRE just issued another permit for deepwater drilling in the Gulf, again to continue work on a well that was already underway, again with a sweeping statement of confidence:

“This permit approval demonstrates that deepwater drilling can and will continue in the Gulf of Mexico provided that operators have successfully demonstrated their ability to operate safely,” said BOEMRE Director Michael R. Bromwich.

And once again, the public version of this permit application submitted by ATP Oil & Gas Corporation contains no information at all about the estimated worst-case spill, the specifications and test results for the containment device that would be deployed in the event of a blowout, and the cleanup technology that will be employed to deal with a major spill. We assume from their letter to President Obama that the company provided this information to BOEMRE. So why can’t the public see this information too, so we can all share in BOEMRE’s confidence?

What’s so secret about an oil spill cleanup plan anyway?

On a related note, BOEMRE also just approved Shell’s latest exploration plan for the deepwater Gulf, which did contain details about a worst-case scenario spill, a containment plan, and a cleanup plan. We think the plan had some alarming shortcomings. You can read our concerns in the comments we submitted.

Mystery Oil Slick off Grand Isle, LA

Reports of an oil slick in the Gulf just off Grand Isle, Louisiana this weekend prompted us to take a close look at the available low-resolution MODIS satellite imagery from NASA. Some accounts claimed an oil slick as large as 100 miles long and 12 miles wide, and mentioned a 4-6 hour leak from an offshore well that was being plugged.

It seems a couple of things are happening: the Coast Guard does say there has been a leak from a well undergoing plugging operations (we’re still trying to determine exactly which well, and where). But there is also a huge plume of sediment (and other stuff) surging out of the Mississippi Delta and streaming past Grand Isle, thanks to the spring melt of much deeper than normal snowpack in the upper Midwest, and heavy rainfall in the Mississippi watershed. This sediment plume looks pretty ugly up close: it’s brown, nasty, and carries a lot of stuff in it that is very bad for the Gulf: pesticide and fertilizer runoff, sewage overflows, and oily runoff from all our paved roads and parking lots that’s been building up over the winter. This is what causes one of the Gulf’s worst, chronic environmental problems: the giant “dead zone” that forms every year.

This MODIS image taken from the Aqua satellite in Saturday shows this big brown plume of gunk knuckling toward Grand Isle:

NASA satellite image taken about 2pm local time on Saturday, March 19, 2011

Photos taken from the air over the weekend show what looks to me like the leading edge of this nasty sediment plume, not an oil slick. And the MODIS satellite images taken since Friday don’t show any sign of a major oil spill. But there is more to this story: the Coast Guard does say that there has been a leak from a well, and oil from that leak began coming ashore on Elmer Isle, Grand Isle and Fourchon Isle on Sunday.

We know that several wells have been steadily leaking at the site of a destroyed oil platform since Hurricane Ivan in 2004, with sporadic work since then to plug those wells; we assume that work has still not been completed. It’s possible the oil originates from that location; the MODIS image shows surface currents moving from the Platform 23051 site toward Grand Isle.

Grand Isle Platform 102A is also nearby, about 50 miles south of Grand Isle. This oil platform was evacuated just two weeks ago when it caught fire. The company reports that production had been shut in before the fire, but we’ve seen no followup since then on the status of that platform.

Again, based on the free NASA satellite images we’ve seen so far, there is no sign of a large oil spill. We’ll keep looking.

Check out Videos of SkyTruth’s Presentation at American University.

Here are clips to some highlights from SkyTruth’s presentation at American University on February 15.

Here is the introduction and John discussing what we do here at SkyTruth.

In this clip, John discusses his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on November 19, 2009. Hear all about how much the Senator from Louisiana liked him.

John discusses the view from above and then takes you down to ground level.

And in this last clip, John shares with the group some of his favorite satellite images.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant – Then and Now

Yesterday we posted on the deepening crisis at the blast-damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan; our first version of that post compared a March 16 high-resolution satellite image of the plant with what we thought was a March 12 image of the same plant. A couple of alert readers pointed out that the March 12 image actually showed a sister nuke plant nearby, the Fukushima Daini plant, so we removed that image from the blog (you can see it here).

Today, we’ll take a look at before-and-after images of the struggling Daiichi plant made using imagery from DigitalGlobe and Google Earth:

Fukushima Daiichi, high-resolution satellite image taken March 16, 2011 (from DigitalGlobe). Obvious damage to the outer containment buildings from hydrogen explosions at reactor units 1, 3 and 4. Unit 2 appears relatively intact but unseen damage inside the unit from a March 14 explosion is posing a serious threat


Fukushima Daiichi, high-resolution satellite image taken in 2004, with 3-d buildings shown for reference (from Google Earth)


Fukushima Daiichi, high-resolution satellite image taken in 2004 without 3-d buildings overlay (from Google Earth)