Multi-modal commuting

Here at SkyTruth we are always trying to reduce our carbon footprint, which is why I have started riding my bicycle in to work. The problem is that my house is about 3 miles away from the office, and the road that gets me there has no shoulder, no shade, tight corners and too many cars. So while I do feel quite virtuous about all that carbon I’m not emitting every time I ride in, I really don’t enjoy the ride very much.

However, we are blessed here in Shepherdstown with a GREAT resource just across the river in Maryland known as the C&O Canal. This is the old canal built in the 1800’s to ship goods from Cumberland, MD down to Washington, DC. It’s now a National Park, and the old tow path is well maintained so it makes for a really nice bike ride along the river, under the shade of big old sycamores, oaks and poplars. The only problem is that it’s on the other side of the river from my house, and the only crossing is the James Rumsey Bridge at Shepherdstown, which is at the other end of the hot, narrow, winding road.

Solution: borrow an old canoe from a neighbor and paddle across with my bike, tie it to a tree on the other side, and then ride down to Shepherdstown on the quiet, cool canal tow path, and finally cross the bridge and ride through town to the office.


View Paul’s commute to work in a larger map

Oil Slick from Platform 23051 Site – Aerial Video

Bonny Schumaker of Wings of Care flew out over the site of former platform 23051 in the Gulf on Friday, July 1, to document the chronic oil leak there. She reported seeing just a buoy at the location, and a long oil slick. Check out her blog to see several photos and this brief video she captured during that flight showing what appears to be a rainbow sheen (0.3 to 5 microns thick).


The Ocean Saratoga drill rig is no longer working at the site, yet this chronic leak since 2004 has not been repaired.  When will this job resume?  And when will it be finished?

Closing The Book on This One – For Now

So there have been lots of questions and not very many answers over the past few weeks regarding the status of leaking wells in the Gulf. Where are they? Are they leaking? How much? Who owns them? Questions led to more questions, so the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) took action to get to the bottom of things.

A possible spill was originally reported off of Venice, LA (see our blog) on June 8. Later that same day, an oil slick in that general vicinity was sampled and tested by scientists from National Wildlife Federation and LSU, who determined this was fresh crude oil unrelated to the BP spill. On June 10 our GMC partners at SouthWings took Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network on a flight to see where that leak was coming from, but they didn’t find anything near the coordinates where the leak was originally reported.

However, they DID stumble across an actively leaking well not far away, in Breton Sound. You can read Jonathan Henderson’s blog here. Below is the well, obviously leaking, photographed on June 10, 2011 during the overflight. You can see all the photos taken on that flight here.

Photo taken on June 10 by Jonathan Henderson of Gulf Restoration Network

Many, many thanks go out to the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, who on June 17 went out in a boat to inspect that well in Breton Sound. Paul and Michael Orr went out check the status of the well head. What they found was that this well was no longer leaking but there was a distinct petroleum odor on site. The well looked somewhat battered, as if it was hit by a vessel, but there was no oil leaking from it.

Photos taken on June 17, 2011 by Jeffrey Dubinsky

You can check out their gallery and see not only the well in question but the other shots they took of the declining oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf, like this one:
Photo taken on June 17, 2011 by Jeffrey Dubinsky

Hopefully this puts to rest the saga of the leaking well in Breton Sound for now, but the Gulf Monitoring Consortium is hard at work keeping an eye on things, because sadly there will, no doubt, be many more leaks to investigate.

The “Frack Pack” is Back

The “Frack Pack” (Ben, Michelle and Ed and Paul) is back from our expedition to frack country in north central PA, and now we’re poring over all the data we collected last week. We don’t have the data fully transcribed and processed yet, but I thought I would take a minute to share a quick report of our recent experience.

The goal of our expedition was to demonstrate that we can effectively predict where drilling hotspots will be in the coming months based on permit activity at the state level, and then conduct water sampling in adjacent streams to measure potential surface water impacts before, during and after the peak activity.

To do this we take new drilling permit approvals that we get from the Pennsylvania DEP, and project which permits will be drilled in the next 3 months based on past activity and past drill completion reports. Then we look at which watersheds contain the most soon-to-be drilled sites, and target those watersheds for water quality sampling.

So last month, we consolidated permit approvals from January through May and overlaid that on a map of the watersheds in the upper Susquehanna to determine which watersheds were most at risk of impacts in July and August. From that list we picked three to target, the Wysox, Meshoppen, and the Upper Pine.


Unfortunately, Google Earth only showed high quality imagery for the area from 2005, so there was no evidence of any new Marcellus drill pads there. And our friends at NASA had no recent, high quality (and free) satellite imagery available, so we looked around and found some decent aerial imagery available for the state of PA from summer 2010.

Using the newer imagery, we could see plenty of existing well pads, but we could also see that many of our recently permitted drill sites were in areas that had not been cleared as of summer 2010, so we were confident that we would be able to see fairly recent clearing and drilling activity.

For the 3 watersheds we found 16,17 and 14 clusters of permits in each, for a total of just under 47 sites to look at. Many of the sites are on private land, and not easily accessible from the public roadways, so we needed a way to get a good look at these sites so we could determine the level of activity at each. To solve this problem, we turned to our friends at LightHawk who were able to supply us with a plane and a pilot to fly us out of Elmira, NY for a 2-hour tour of our study area.


After the flight (which was a great success), we set out to get water quality samples in the streams near to the sites where we had observed the most recent activity. In general this effort went quite well, though the recent dry spell made for some pretty low flows in some of the smaller streams, and a few local property owners were a bit prickly to see a bunch of outsiders poking around in their streams, but all in all we collected some good data. We got an inch and half of rain on Saturday night, (3 out of our 4 tents came through it nice and dry – one team member had to bunk in the car), so on Sunday we got to collect a few post-rain event samples which will give us a nice comparison to the pre-rain measurements we made.

Like I said at the beginning, the data is still being transcribed from our notebooks, so we can’t say much about that yet, and we are only looking at one sample per location right now, so we will have to go back and get more samples next month to see if we can see any changes. We will also be analyzing the excellent water quality monitoring data set provided by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission that has some permanent water quality monitoring stations in the area.

One thing we can say from our observations is that there is WAY too much sediment in these streams, which could be due to widespread land clearing for well pads, and perhaps more significantly, greatly increased road construction and road traffic creating large amounts of dust and storm runoff.

Stay tuned for future reporting based on our water quality measurements including Temperature, pH, Conductivity and Turbidity.

Bohai Bay Oil Spill – Lessons for Arctic Drilling?

Proponents of drilling in the Arctic Ocean claim the risk of significant spills is much lower than in places like the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, because the water is much shallower and the wells won’t be drilled nearly as deep as BP’s failed Macondo well.  But recent spills in the Bohai Bay off China, including a possible blowout in the Peng Lai 19-3 oil field, might lead to a reevaluation of those comforting assumptions. 

Peng Lai 19-3 is a new offshore field operated by US energy giant ConocoPhillips (Halliburton is the drilling contractor).  This is China’s largest offshore oil field and it lies in very shallow water (76′ deep).  The wells are also very shallow, only reaching about 3000′ below the seafloor.  The development includes the largest FPSO in China.  This field represents an investment of at least $1.8 billion by ConocoPhillips.