Remember when we said our first balloon launch was ALMOST a success?

Well, let’s just say that’s not the most right we’ve ever been. We are happy to report that we actually caught some really cool images when the camera wasn’t spinning like a top up there in the atmosphere. Have a look.

In this picture, Paul and John are preparing to fill the balloon with helium with the help of Dr. Ed Snyder of Shepherd University. Without Dr. Snyder and the good folks at Shepherd, this wouldn’t be possible.

How’s this for advertising our product?

Looks like a successful launch:


And we have liftoff!


In this shot, you can see what the top of Paul’s hat really looks like:


Say cheese, Paul!


Outside the 24 hour room of the Scarborough Library. Surprisingly good shots follow:

And coming in for a landing:

We’re hoping to catch some even better shots when we take the balloon camera out again on Thursday, April 21 on the Campus of Shepherd University as the Shepherd Environmental Organization celebrates Earth Day. Come on out and see us around lunchtime! We’ll be the ones with the big white balloon telling everyone to look up and smile for the camera.

Join us on Thursday for Another Balloon Camera Launch at Shepherd University

If you missed it the first time around, here’s your chance to see us as we launch our SkyTruth Balloon Camera again this week! Please join us on the campus of Shepherd University as we once again send the balloon up and see what cool images we can gather as the Shepherd Environmental Organization celebrates Earth Day this Thursday, April 21 around noon. We’ll be located between the Byrd Science Building and the Scarborough Library, so come by around lunchtime and say hello and smile for the camera!

No, you’re not seeing things sideways, this is one of the shots that our balloon mounted camera captured as it rose in the air above the library.

Another really cool image we caught during our first balloon launch.

That launch was relatively stealth, no pomp, no circumstance because we had no idea if it would work. Now we know. So provided the weather holds out for us, we’re going up, up and away on Thursday, April 21! See you there.

Announcing: the Gulf Monitoring Consortium

Today, SkyTruth, SouthWings, and Waterkeeper Alliance launch the Gulf Monitoring Consortium: an innovative partnership that is systematically monitoring oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico with satellite images and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and on-the-water observation and sampling. This unique effort led by three non-profit organizations will collect and publish images, observations and sampling data of the Gulf of Mexico to rapidly respond to reported and suspected oil pollution incidents.

Read the full news release.

At SkyTruth we’re always looking for ways to get reliable and timely ground truth information to accompany our satellite images; it helps the images tell a fuller story. Working with SouthWings, we can get pilots and observers up in the air to investigate spill reports and corroborate indications of pollution on satellite imagery. Waterkeeper can mobilize folks on the coast and the water, in coordination with satellite overpasses and aerial overflights, to get up-close documentation and samples of suspected pollution.

This newly formed alliance will actively bear witness to current, ongoing, and future oil pollution to fill the information gap exposed since the tragic BP / Deepwater Horizon explosion one year ago. During the BP spill SkyTruth, SouthWings and the Waterkeeper Alliance detected and documented an unrelated, chronic leak from a platform destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. And you probably recall that for several days following the oil spill that came ashore March 20 in Grand Isle, Louisiana, government officials provided little information to the public on the source or severity of the pollution. Concerned citizens, NGOs and the media scrambled to figure out what was happening, and requested help from our organizations. And the more we look into it, the more we find that official government pollution reports, in many cases submitted by the polluters themselves, are internally inconsistent and dont match what we observe on satellite images.
Damaging rumors and speculation take hold in the absence of good information, leading people in Gulf communities still reeling from the BP disaster to fear the worst whenever oil comes ashore: another major offshore spill. That’s why we’ve formed this alliance with SouthWings and Waterkeeper, to systematically and efficiently evaluate reported or suspected pollution incidents in a coordinated approach from space, from the air, and on the water, so we can fill this critical information gap.

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium is a rapid response alliance that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information by space, air and water in order to investigate and expose oil pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re actively seeking partner organizations to join us in this effort.

Fracking – Safe or Not?

There has been a lot of buzz lately about stimulating production from gas and oil wells using the relatively new technique of hydraulic fracturing — fracking, fraccing or fracing for short. Most of the new natural gas wells drilled in this country rely on fracking to yield economically attractive quantities of gas, especially in the booming shale-gas drilling plays unfolding around the country (Barnett, Marcellus, Haynesville, Fayetteville). Shale-oil drilling (not to be confused with oil shale) is the second wave that’s building fast (Niobrara, Bakken, Eagle Ford). These so-called “unconventional” gas and oil targets were bypassed for years until advances in horizontal drilling and fracking provided the key to unlocking these significant gas resources. Now they are becoming the main focus of drilling activity in North America, affecting many residential and even urban areas where drilling was once considered inconceivable.

Natural-gas wells on public land in the Jonah Field of western Wyoming. Fracking is routine for most gas wells drilled now in the U.S. Photo courtesy EcoFlight.

Recent highly publicized drinking water contamination incidents linked to gas drilling, and the popularity of the documentary film Gasland (can you light your tap water on fire?), have raised the public profile of this game-changing drilling process. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying the safety of fracking. Congress is holding two hearings this week, in the House and in the Senate, to try to get some answers. No doubt many of the problems stem from the mundane details of drilling that can plague any complex construction job: bad well design and construction, ill-advised shortcuts, and – the leader of the pack – poor cementing.

Industry wants us to believe that if we just fix those problems then fracking can be done safely. Disclosing the chemicals used in fracking at each drilling site, so homeowners know what to test their water for, would be a good start.

Tanks for handling fracking fluids at a new Marcellus Shale natural-gas well site in northeast Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy J. Henry Fair.

But we wonder if hydraulic fracturing is intrinsically unsafe, even if the well design and construction is totally by-the-book. Here’s why: fracking works by levering open fractures in the rock, and propping those fractures open with sand (or synthetic microbeads). Tectonically “open” fractures, that are aligned parallel to the regional stress field, are most susceptible to being pried open. If a frack job intersects pre-existing open faults or other natural fractures in the bedrock — especially vertical fractures that can span multiple geologic formations above and below the target zone — how do we ensure that fracking fluids don’t migrate in unpredictable ways via these natural flowpaths?

Smart drillers don’t want to lose all their fracking fluid into a single fracture or fault: it’s expensive, a waste of time, and doesn’t accomplish what they want. But avoiding those features requires doing borehole imaging studies on the well to identify and map them, which also costs time and money. It’s not hard to imagine a driller weighing the expense of borehole imaging surveys vs. the risk of performing an ineffective frack job.

We know just enough about this to raise a few questions, and would appreciate some real experts weighing in by commenting on this post:

  • What do companies do to avoid the undesired result of fluids migrating out of the fracking target zone?
  • What actions to avoid this result are required, and how are they verified by regulators?
  • What actions are voluntary, and how commonly are they used?

Thanks in advance for sharing your expertise on this important issue!

Offshore Drilling, Onshore Spilling

In case anyone doubts there is any connection between offshore oil and gas drilling, and risks of spills from onshore oil facilities, the helpful officials at BOEMRE have just made that connection crystal clear. Yesterday, BOEMRE awarded the 9th deepwater drilling permit since the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill to Murphy Oil Corporation to resume work on a well in the Green Canyon area of the Gulf of Mexico.

Over one million gallons of oil spilled from a Murphy Oil storage tank damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Photo source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

If the name sounds familiar, it should: in 2005 a Murphy oil storage tank damaged by hurricane Katrina spilled one million gallons of crude oil into a residential neighborhood in Chalmette, Louisiana; the biggest single spill of the 9 million gallons estimated by the US Coast Guard that spilled from storm-damaged facilities onshore and offshore. Some of this oil came from Gulf production; some may have been imported. But it’s clear that offshore producers need to have onshore facilities, and these facilities continue to be just as vulnerable to storm damage now as they were six years ago. And hurricanes are just a fact of life along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

Crude oil from failed Murphy Oil storage tank impacted 1,700 homes on Chalmette and Meraux, Louisiana. Photo source: Wikimedia
Folks in Virginia might want to think about that as their politicians lead the charge to expand offshore drilling in US waters.