Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline – Alternative Route Through Nebraska

TransCanada just published their “preferred alternative” routing of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska.  They went back to the drawing board after a barrage of complaints that the pipeline would cut through the visually striking and ecologically distinctive Sand Hills region, and run across the economically vital Ogallala Aquifer.  We’ve created a series of maps showing this new route, superimposed in Google Earth.

Overview showing TransCanada’s April 18, 2012 “preferred alternative” route for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in Nebraska. Preferred alternative in green. Map overlain in Google Earth.

National Wildlife Federation and others aren’t exactly thrilled with this proposed alternative route either, claiming it still intersects those sensitive areas.  And if you’d like to see the “business end” of this controversial pipeline, check out our maps and images of the vast tar sands mining and extraction operation up in Alberta.  Take a quick video tour to see just how big this already is.

1 of 7 detail maps of the pipeline route. See the others in our gallery.


Florida Wildfires

Florida’s burning. All over. But one fire in particular can be seen in this Modis image from yesterday. The smoke coming from the fire burning in the upper right hand corner is from the County-line fire, which started from a lightning strike on April 5. Currently, there are 30,000+ acres burning in this fire.

Modis/Aqua satellite image taken April 12, 2012

According to this article from OPB News, over 1400 wildfires have burned in Florida in 2012 and the wildfire season isn’t even at its peak yet. As you can see from this really cool graphic from the Florida Forest Service, there are fires burning in almost every area of Florida in all directions with the exception of the area south of Palm Beach.

One image that I saw from yesterday, however, shows what looks to be a fire burning on the little piece of land called St. Vincent Island, just southeast of Panama City, FL. I haven’t seen anything about this on the news and maybe it’s just an anomaly in the image, but it looks like something’s burning there. Anyone have any info on this one?

Modis/Aqua 7-2-1 satellite image taken April 12, 2012

Bad News for Pollution Monitoring – US Needs a Radar Satellite, Stat!

It appears that we’ve lost one of the most important tools in the field of Earth observation:  on April 8, the Envisat satellite stopped communicating with its handlers at the European Space Agency.  While this is not happy news, the satellite was a real workhorse well beyond its expected lifespan and was an outstanding success for ESA’s program.

We routinely used radar satellite images collected by Envisat’s ASAR sensor, and low-resolution optical-infrared images from the MERIS instrument, to monitor places around the world for oil pollution related to offshore oil and gas development and shipping.  As a tool for tracking vessels throughout the ocean, ASAR was also useful for monitoring fishing.

Here’s a recent example of our work using ASAR, illustrating and measuring Shell’s major oil spill off the coast of Nigeria last December:

Envisat ASAR image capturing Shell oil spill off Nigeria in December 2011. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

There are other options, none quite as good as ASAR for its combination of coverage, capability and availability, and cost.  We’ve used radar satellite images from the TerraSAR-X and Cosmo-SkyMed systems, operated by Germany and Italy, for various oil spills including the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 and the Montara blowout and spill off Australia in 2009.  Canada’s commercially operated Radarsat is an excellent system comparable to Envisat’s ASAR, although the data cost makes large-area monitoring a very expensive endeavor.  And the European Space Agency is planning to launch Sentinel as a followup to the Envisat program, although that launch is not expected for at least a year.

Which brings me to my #1 complaint about the US space program:  why doesn’t the US have its own civilian radar imaging system?  We once led the world in this technology with the incredible success of SeaSAT way, way back in the day (remember 1978? we WERE the champions!) and we haven’t launched a civilian radar satellite since.

This is a big mistake.  Radar imaging satellites are the #1 tool for conducting cost-effective, routine monitoring of large, remote ocean areas to detect and track vessels and pollution.  Other countries are using imagery hand-in-hand with their enforcement agencies to clamp down on pollution, illegal fishing activity and smuggling.  The U.S. has vast, far-flung ocean spaces to manage, amounting to half of our total territory.  Maritime monitoring has evolved into a national security issue far too important for the U.S. to continue being dependent on foreign- and commercial-operated radar satellites.  Congress, let’s get on the ball and fix this glaring security gap.   

Shell Reports 10-Mile-Long Slick in Deepwater Gulf of Mexico

Yesterday evening Shell reported sighting a 10-mile by 1-mile oil slick between two of their major deepwater oil production platforms, Ursa and Mars. (Here’s what Mars looked like after getting walloped by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.) Actually, federal employees with BSEE who happened to be out there noticed the slick and helpfully pointed it out to Shell, who then mobilized a nearby cleanup vessel and some ROVs to do seafloor inspections.So far Shell claims the slick is not caused by any of their operations, and they note the presence of known natural oil seeps nearby.

This is located in the Mississippi Canyon area of the Gulf, 130 miles south of New Orleans and about 60 miles beyond the tip of the Mississippi Delta, in water about 3,200′ deep.

Yesterday’s low resolution MODIS/Terra satellite image of the area, shot at 16:50 UTC (10:50 am local time) shows what appears to be a narrow, 17-mile-long slick in the vicinity of the two platforms.  We often see slicks from known natural oil seeps that are about this size; some in the Green Canyon area to the west show up well on this same image.  Low clouds and their shadows are scattered across the lower half of this view:

Here is the same scene; we’ve traced the slick in yellow:

And here is the same scene again. We’ve added the locations of known oil and gas platforms (orange dots) and seafloor pipelines (orange lines).  Green dots indicate the locations of known natural oil seeps, based on data provided by Florida State University. Sea-surface wind data collected from the Mars platform show that the wind was blowing from the west or northwest for most of the day on April 11, so we think this slick should originate from a source near the west (left) end.  We don’t see any obvious candidates near that end of the slick, so at this time we’re not sure what to make of this:

Our friend in the air, Bonny Schumaker, flew out over this site today and reported seeing a thin patchy slick of rainbow sheen but no obvious source.  She’ll post photos and video to her site soon.  In the meantime, check out the report, videos and photos from her Gulf overflight on April 6, documenting continuing chronic leakage from the Taylor Energy / 23051 site and a few other surprises – some good, some not so much.

Gas Pipeline Explosion and Fire – Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana

Apologies for John’s bungled bayou geography – the incident he blogged about yesterday occurred in Terrebonne Parish, NOT in Vermilion Parish as originally posted.  The blog post has been corrected.