Bohai Bay Oil Spills, China – Radar Satellite Image, June 11, 2011

We just got a satellite radar image of Bohai Bay taken June 11, 2011.  It shows what appear to be oil slicks emanating from two platforms in the vicinity of the Penglai 19-3 offshore oil field operated by ConocoPhillips.  This fits the story so far, that apparently unrelated spills with different causes occurred at two of the new platforms there. Radar is a powerful tool for detecting oil pollution at sea; it’s very sensitive to the “roughness” of the ocean surface. But not every slick – a flat patch of water – is an oil slick. Some slicks are showing calm water caused by slack offshore wind, heavy rain, thin ice, or natural surfactants from algae, phytoplankton, even large schools of fish.

So radar image interpretation benefits from long experience.  Our experience leads us to be confident in the analysis provided below. We’ll keep checking to see if there are ongoing problems in this field.

Envisat ASAR radar satellite image of Bohai Bay taken on June 11, 2011. Image courtesy of ESA – European Space Agency
Detail from ASAR image identifying cluster of platforms assumed to be in the Penglai 19-3 offshore oil field; and likely oil slicks. Image courtesy of ESA – European Space Agency

Marcellus Shale Hydrofracking Surface Water Impacts

SkyTruth’s Marcellus fracking monitoring project to a big step forward with our recent (first week of July) trip into the field. Being on the ground observing the sites, the pipelines, road work and traffic that all revolve around the massive drilling industry presence in the region was an eye-opening experience. In studying the rapid development of natural gas development in Pennsylvania one has to wonder at the speed. The feeling is half one of admiration and fear. The admiration stems from the vigor, speed and manpower which the industry is putting to the extraction of natural gas. The fear is that so much is being done so quickly with so little oversight. It is not easy to play catch-up, but for the agencies responsible, the DEP and EPA, catch-up will be all they can do. Once a problem is found it can be dealt with, but unless someone is out in the streams monitoring them, then identifying the true cause is not easy.

The activity is hot in PA this year (a spud is a location where drilling operations have begun):

With plans to head out for further field sampling in the final weekend of July, we will revisit the same sites again to measure the comprehensive water quality the Wysox and Meshoppen watersheds. We will use an approach where we are sampling throughout the watershed to establish norms for what to expect and better pinpoint any changes in vital signs, be it visual or quantitative (conductivity levels, turbidity readings). We aim to use our data in part to gain knowledge in order to accurately construct ‘load maps’ for watersheds in PA. A load map is intended to reflect the number of drill sites or permits per square mile in a watershed.

Below it can be seen that many watersheds have high density of drilling scheduled to come soon:

In western PA the watersheds of Little Connoquenessing, and Tenmile Creek show high levels. The permits used to make the map are from the past six months. Generally once a permit is obtained drilling starts with in 3 to 6 months, so a high density of new permits means locals can expect a frenzy of fracking in the near future. In northern PA the watersheds of Larry’s Creek, Wysox Creek and East Branch Wyalusing have high permits levels.

The load approach looks to be a valuable one, and according to research done by scientists of the National Academy and a University of Pennsylvania grad student, the impact of drilling seems to be tied to the density of drilling in a specific area (a watershed in our case). It appears that there is a ‘threshold point’ where it becomes environmentally degrading regardless to the care of the drilling companies.In the watersheds in which we visited, it seemed that individual drill pads looked fine, if not a scar on the land, but once we were in the air (courtesy of LightHawk) the sheer amount of activity was gut-wrenching.

SkyTruth Alerts – Try It!

Ever wonder what’s going on in the environment around your home, your school, your favorite vacation spot? Us too: the world is a big place, and it takes a LOT of satellite images to cover it all. Here at SkyTruth we scour the infosphere for hints telling us where to look, and when. Over the years we’ve accumulated a collection of information sources that we use to decide which satellite images to analyze, and then we use this blog to report our findings and publish our images. We’ve been working on a system to easily share those sources with our partners, and now we’re ready to share it with everyone.

SkyTruth Alerts

Today we are launching a new service on our website called SkyTruth Alerts where we publish environmental incident reports, as we get (and produce) them. We are starting off the service with reports collected from three sources – focused heavily on oil and gas drilling and related activities in the US. The sources are reported oil and hazardous materials spills from the National Response Center, pollution response and investigation reports from NOAA’s Incident News, and incident analyses published on our own SkyTruth blog. We will add more information sources over coming weeks, and extend our focus to include gas drilling and fracking in the Marcellus Shale.

How it Works

The system works by displaying on a map or in Google Earth the most recent incident reports from all sources for whatever region you are interested in. You can browse through the list of incidents geographically on the map, or chronologically in a list. Each incident report identifies the source of the report, the location, and details about the incident. Incident reports are pulled automatically from the various sources several times per day and updated immediately on the website. A visitor to the site can type in the name of a city or a street address and go directly to that location to see the recent incidents that have been reported nearby.

Automatic Update Notifications

Of course, no one wants to have to keep returning to a website every day just to see if anything new has been posted, which is why we offer a subscription system that delivers updates within your personally selected geographic area via RSS feed, or straight to your email (you’ll get one “daily digest” message per day).

So give it a try to get informed about pollution incidents happening in the places you care most about. And please let us know what you like, what you don’t, what you wish you could do with the Alerts. We will continually work to improve this system, so your feedback is very important!

BP Spill Stopped One Year Ago Today – 5,000 Spills Since Then

July 15, 2010 was a day of relief for many – even for folks up here in West Virginia – after 2-1/2 months watching helplessly as oil and gas billowed relentlessly into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s runaway Macondo well. On that day one year ago, the final valve was carefully closed on an improvised “capping stack” that did the job after a string of heartbreaking failures. By that time an estimated 172 million gallons of oil had spewed directly into the Gulf, vastly exceeding the Exxon Valdez tanker spill of 1989 — making it the nation’s worst oil spill, and the world’s worst accidental spill.

Photo from “spill cam” showing oil flow shut off at last on July 15, 2010

After cumulatively covering an area the size of Oklahoma, the massive oil slicks on the Gulf’s surface began to dissipate almost immediately under the steady assault of evaporation, wind and wave action, biodegradation, photolysis, and cleanup efforts. We last observed significant oil slicks on satellite images taken July 28. But unknown amounts of oil and chemical dispersant lingered beneath the ocean’s surface, out of sight, with an uncertain fate and as-yet untallied environmental consequences.  What is clear is that this spill caused significant economic damage to the Gulf seafood and tourism industries, upsetting the lives and livelihoods of people as far away as Virginia. And oil from the spill continues to wash ashore along the Gulf coast.

Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass any new laws governing offshore drilling safety.  In fact, they are going backwards by reducing funding for government inspections and oversight — despite the fact that the oil industry itself requested more funding for BOEMRE, the agency that manages offshore drilling.

Other frustrations?  The lack of progress in creating a national oil spill cleanup capability that has a fighting chance against the next major spill; the continued reliance on chemical dispersants as an effective cleanup tool, despite evidence suggesting they may do more harm than good; our serendipitous discovery of a chronic, 7-years-and-counting leak that is continually polluting the Gulf; the regular occurrence of “mystery spills” that never get resolved; the laughable results of a system that naively hopes polluters will accurately report their spills; the lack of consistent fines for polluters, a moral hazard that encourages sloppy operations and risk taking, all but ensuring another major disaster.

Oh yeah, and the 5,100 new oil and other hazardous materials spills in the Gulf region reported to the National Response Center since July 15, 2010.  Here are the 3,000 reports that have enough usable location information for us to pinpoint them on a map:

NRC oil and hazardous materials spill reports, July 15, 2010 – July 15, 2011

The inevitable conclusion?  Concerned individuals and citizen’s groups, like our Gulf Monitoring Consortium, have to take it upon themselves to investigate, understand, and publicize what’s really going on with pollution and offshore drilling. You can help us by submitting your observations and photos to our Gulf Oil Spill Tracker site. And next week we’ll unveil the SkyTruth Alerts system, a continually updated interactive map of reported pollution incidents nationwide, onshore and off.

Ongoing Leak at Platform 23051 Site – Anybody Home?

A quick update on the chronic leak we’ve been following at the former site of an oil platform reportedly destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.  RigData reports that the semisubmersible drilling rig that has been intermittently working to plug the leaking wells at this site, the Ocean Saratoga, has been towed away to work on a short-term drilling job elsewhere:

Ocean Saratoga has moved to Green Canyon Block 50 for a short-term well with Nexen Petroleum U.S.A., Inc. on a sublet from Taylor Energy Company, LLC. The work will last for around 20 days, which will conclude Taylor’s contract time on the rig. Upon completion of the work, the rig will go into shore for its five-year survey, which will take 45 days.

So the question is: who is working to plug the continuing leaks at this site?  The most recent overflight on July 1 shows an oil slick but no rig at the site, indicating that the work is not finished:

Photo of oil slick at Platform 23051 location, taken on July 1, 2011 by Bonny Schumaker / Wings of Care

That raises another question: is anyone being fined for this years-long, continual pollution of the Gulf of Mexico? Federal authorities claim the wells are leaking at an average rate of about 14 gallons per day (although satellite evidence suggests a much greater leak rate).  Hurricane Ivan made landfall on September 16, 2004, so it’s been at least 2,496 days that this leak has existed.  At 14 gallons per day that’s 35,000 gallons (832 barrels) of oil into the Gulf; if the basic $1,100 per barrel fine was assessed under the Clean Water Act, Taylor Energy would now be liable for a fine of almost $1 million.  But if they’re not facing any fines, there’s no incentive for them to expedite the plugging operation and stop this leak – especially if they can sublet the rig out to another company for what we suspect is a lucrative drilling job.

A recent study concluded less than 1% of the spills into Gulf waters off Louisiana resulted in any fine, and the fines that are assessed are ridiculously small compared to the profits realized from offshore oil and gas production.  Why is weak and inconsistent enforcement such a big deal? Because it sets up what economists like to call a “moral hazard,” encouraging companies to engage in risky behavior that they otherwise might think twice about.

And that burgeoning culture of sloppiness, if left unchecked by consistent and vigorous monitoring and enforcement, will inevitably lead to the next catastrophic oil spill.