Unreported Leak / Discharge from Oil Platform Off Louisiana Coast – May 7, 2011

Thought you all would like to (finally) see photos taken during the very first official action of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium back in May of this year. SouthWings pilot Dan Luke flew along the Gulf coast to investigate possible leaks from oil and gas infrastructure in western Louisiana, from Vermilion Bay to Sabine Pass.  About 37 miles east of Grand Chenier, passenger Jamie Ward took a series of photos showing an apparent discharge of oily material from a platform about a mile offshore:

Gulf Monitoring Consortium photo taken May 7, 2011 showing apparent discharge from an oil platform in state waters along the Louisiana coast.

We haven’t been able to find any report for this incident at the National Response Center.  It’s our understanding that any discharges or leaks that create a visible oily sheen on the water must be reported to the NRC by the responsible party.

This isn’t the only spill we’ve stumbled across where there was no report by the responsible party; later that summer, in another Gulf Monitoring Consortium investigation, Jon Henderson documented (photos and video) a long oil slick emanating from a wellhead in Breton Sound.

Why is this interesting? Well, it makes us wonder:  how many other leaks and spills are simply going unreported in the Gulf?  If 2 out of 5 Gulf Monitoring Consortium actions discovered unreported spills, it raises the possibility that this could be a very large problem.  Maybe the spills weren’t reported simply because no personnel from the responsible company were on site to notice a problem.  But that’s troubling because the vast majority of the 3,600 or so actively producing oil and gas platforms and other structures in the Gulf aren’t occupied.  What you can’t see, you can’t report.  Which means that we really don’t have any idea how much pollution is caused by day-to-day offshore oil and gas operations.

And that’s a real problem – not just for the Gulf and for restoring the natural resources that support the fishing, seafood and tourism industries – but for folks in other parts of the country, like Alaska and Virginia and North Carolina who are being asked to support the expansion of offshore drilling to their coasts.

Alberta Tar Sands – It’s Not Just About the Mining

As controversy over the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline builds, Alberta’s vast oil sand reserves have become the target of much speculation and review. Last week SkyTruth published maps and images revealing the extent of surface mining operations and their visible impact on Alberta’s environment (see “Oil from Sand? You Better Believe It” and  “Tar Sands Mining…” blogs).

The surface mining extent is startling enough in scope, but surface mining is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg: the vast majority of oil sands wealth – 80% to be exact – lies farther below the surface. These deeper reserves will most likely be extracted through in-situ or “on site” methods, like Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), where steam is injected into the ground to liquefy the bitumen for easier retrieval.

(maps and images after the jump) 

Although not as much of an eyesore as open-pit surface mining operations which draw the majority of attention, in-situ methods are no less invasive or environmentally risky.

Taking in-situ extraction into account, the true extent of the oil sands development area absolutely dwarfs the already huge surface mining footprint:

Extent of existing surface mining operations, and lands approved for future surface mining, as of 2009. Washington, DC for scale.
Potential extent of tar sands extraction operations, depicting areas currently under lease for in-situ extraction and surface mining area.  Massachusetts for scale.  Three of the active in-situ operations are shown.

This “Area Leased for In Situ Extraction” map is built from data graciously provided from the Pembina Institute. The extent was based upon lands already leased for in-situ extraction as of August 2006. This extent has not been updated to account for new leases since this time. Based upon Alberta’s regional reports of drilling activity, it can be assumed that the actual, current extent is bigger than illustrated here.

So what does in-situ development look like? Google Earth has detailed imagery showing some of the active in-situ operations; they look a lot like natural-gas drilling, with drilling sites spaced very closely together, processing facilities, and a network of access roads, pipelines and utility corridors.  In many places, as in the example below, there is also a dense grid of seismic survey lines.  All in all, this is a highly fragmented landscape – and there’s a lot more going on beneath the ground that we can’t see:

Image of Christina Lake In-Situ Extraction Operations run by Cenovus Energy.

   They have recently won approval to more than double current capacity to a total of  250,000 barrels per day.

Check out more pics like this in our growing gallery of Alberta tar sands images and maps.

Tar Sands Mining: Well, Canada is sorta big right?

It is one thing to say that the Athabasca tar sands mining project is a behemoth- quite another to actually see it. Here at SkyTruth we have always recognized how powerful a story real-world images can tell.

Check out our newest addition of satellite “truthing” – A quick animation of the growing Athabasca tar sands mining “footprint” and future extent.
Big tip o’ the hat to Global Forest Watch Canada for providing the mining data.

We have placed the boundary of Washington, DC on top of one of the open-pit mine locations to give viewers a sense of just how vast this whole operation is. Have any of you ambitious tourists ever attempted to walk the length of the National Mall from the U.S. Capital to the Lincoln Memorial?

It’s farther than it looks (as my feet will attest) – about 1.9 miles to be exact. Now imagine that instead of strolling along green lawn you are  bobbing in the middle of a 4 mile wide industry tailings pond, full of sand and a host of known toxins. This distance, indeed the entire area of the District, is minuscule in comparison to the Athabasca extent.

Future mining extent and 2009 mined extent
And don’t forget the future, already approved extent of mining not yet begun. Or the much larger area of surrounding land used for in-situ, or on-site, extraction operations not shown in this animation; here’s a pic showing the landscape impact of in-situ development.
As citizens and policy makers alike gear up for the largest protest yet against the Keystone XL pipeline happening this Sunday, November 6 at the White House, it is important to remember that no event occurs in a vacuum. Approval of this pipeline will open up new markets for tar sands oil in the US, Mexico, Central and South America and Europe – and put this already vast mining and extraction operation on steroids.

Oil from sand? You better believe it.

Question: From which country does the United States receive the majority of it’s oil?
Answer: Canada! Not Saudi Arabia. Not Angola. Not Kuwait. Canada.
You would be very surprised by how few people know this crucial fact. Or maybe not that surprised, depending on how you answered the above question.
Fact is Alberta’s bituminous tar sands have rapidly become a burgeoning force in our oil-driven world. The oil itself is retrieved through “unconventional” methods, as the sands are mined and refined through various processes to extract bitumen and turn it into petroleum. Controversy is raging right now over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring much more oil from Alberta’s tar sands across the US to refineries on the Gulf Coast – possibly for export to Mexico, Central America and other markets. The U.S. recently began exporting more petroleum than we import.
Alberta has experienced a economic boom in only a few short years, shepherding job creation and wealth into the province. However, environmental protests against domestic tar sands expansion and subsequent impacts on local wildlife and the Athabasca River are gaining force. Although industry players draw support through proclamations that tar sands are more “ethical” compared to oil from the Middle East or Africa, carbon emissions from extraction and refining pose significant climate threats to all of us.
Regardless of the politics, the actual mining imprint on Alberta’s landscape is impossible to fudge, and getting harder to ignore. See SkyTruth’s Flickr page for satellite images of the Athabasca mines.
Above: An animation of Alberta’s tar sands growth, including refining stations, open pit mines and tailing ponds.
Below: 1974-2009 mined extent and area approved for tar sands mining. Washington, DC shown for scale. Mine-extent data provided by Global Forest Watch Canada.

Believe it or not, these SkyTruth maps only show part of the impact of tar sands development – the area where surface mining is the preferred technique.  A much larger area surrounding this has been targeted for  “in-situ” exploitation, where steam is generated (by burning natural gas) and pumped into the ground, heating up the buried tar sands deposits until bitumen is liquified and can be pumped to the surface for processing. Here’s the landscape footprint of the in-situ process:

Infrastructure footprint of in-situ extraction of bitumen using the steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technique near Cold Lake, Alberta. Each bright rectangular patch is a cleared area about 6-7 acres in size where horizontal wells are drilled to inject steam and extract the bitumen for processing. Drilling sites are spaced about 0.2 – 0.5 miles apart.

U.S. National Forests No Match for Drilling Boom

As part of SkyTruth’s ongoing analysis of gas and oil drilling in Pennsylvania (see HotSpot Map blog and Abandoned Wells blog) we’ve begun exploring the effects of the Marcellus play on national and state forests.

This issue has been of concern to environmentalists and residents alike for several years. In 2009 the U.S. Forest Service was sued by conservation groups for allowing gas drilling to continue without the completion of environmental site assessments of potential drilling effects. The case was ruled in favor of such assessments, but drilling companies and private mineral owners with stakes in the Allegheny were quick to appeal. In September, 2011 the settlement requiring environmental site assessments before drilling can begin was overturned, thus opening up the national forest for new gas and oil drilling, including horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The map below illustrates drilling in Allegheny National Forest from January 2005 – October 2011:

3,845 oil and gas wells drilled in Allegheny National Forest since 2005


Nearly 4,000 oil and gas wells were drilled in Allegheny National Forest since 2005.  Only 15 of those are Marcellus Shale wells, and all of them were drilled since 2009. As the concern about natural gas drilling in U.S. National Forests spreads, SkyTruth intends to continue monitoring the number of permits received by the PA DEP Bureau of Oil and Gas Management to see if this ruling will bring increased drilling activity in the area as expected.