Drilling off Cuba, Drilling in the Arctic – And No Monitoring Capability. Really?!

Soapbox time!
Here at SkyTruth we’ve been concerned about the loss of the world’s premier tool for offshore monitoring with the demise of the European Space Agency’s excellent Envisat satellite in early April.  The successor, Sentinel, won’t be launched until sometime next year at the earliest.  Meanwhile, we do have alternatives:  RADARSAT, Cosmo-SkyMed, and TerraSAR-X.  But these are all commercially operated systems and the images range in price from about $1200 to as much as $7500, making them prohibitively expensive for routine monitoring of large areas in the open ocean.
Envisat ASAR radar image showing precise location of Scarabeo-9 drill rig in Cuban waters of Florida Straits.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.
This is all an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of the fact that, for reasons we can’t fathom, the US has decided not to operate any civilian radar imaging satellites.  We led the world in this technology with the launch of SeaSat back in 1978, but now we’re dependent on foreign-operated systems.  We consider this a national security fail of a high order: radar imaging satellites are a key tool for establishing and maintaining maritime domain awareness, and effectively managing and protecting our nation’s vast ocean territory. Maybe the National Reconnaissance Office has a couple of extra radar spy satellites lying around that they could donate to NASA for civilian use.  The intelligence agencies seem to have plenty of $$ to build more toys than they can use while NASA’s satellite program is starving for cash. But I digress…
The BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico highlighted the value of satellite imagery for independently assessing the size and severity of the spill, tracking the day-to-day movement of the oil slicks, and identifying the ocean and coastal areas directly impacted by the oil.  Our work since then has demonstrated the value of radar imagery in particular for detecting bilge-dumping from oceangoing vessels, a major source of marine pollution worldwide; for detecting vessels that may be operating illegally in areas that are off-limits to fishing; and for comparing the pollution as reported by polluters, with what we can actually observe.
Now companies from around the world are rushing to do deepwater drilling in Cuban waters close to Florida, with no agreement in place that will allow US companies to assist in the event of a major oil spill. Pemex, the state oil company of Mexico, has announced plans to begin high-risk ultra-deepwater drilling in the Gulf despite their alarming lack of deepwater expertise.  Drilling is set to begin as soon as July in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska, raising a host of questions about the impact of day-to-day pollution in that sensitive environment and our ability to effectively clean up an oil spill in typical Arctic ice and weather conditions, far from bases of operation.  And, as SkyTruth and our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners have demonstrated, we continue to have spills every day in the Gulf of Mexico that are unreported, underreported, and rarely investigated: a continuing moral hazard of tolerating sloppy operations that, in our opinion, sets the stage for the next chain of error that leads to a catastrophic spill.
Shell’s Kulluk drill rig under tow, set to drill in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska this summer.  Source:  Fuelfix.com.
Now, more than ever, we need a public source of routine radar images for all of these areas to allow everyone to see what’s happening, to provide assurance that there are no undue environmental problems associated with these innately risky developments, and to stand ready to immediately swing into action to support response efforts should a serious accident occur.
We call on the US government to work with the commercial radar image companies to provide a publicly accessible stream of radar imagery until Sentinel, or some other radar imaging system, fills the big monitoring gap left by the demise of Envisat.  We would gladly participate in discussions to help make this happen, and soon.

July is not very far off. And to let drilling proceed in the Arctic Ocean without a transparent, public monitoring system and spill-response tool in place strikes us as both reckless and irresponsible:  a needless escalation of the risks involved with drilling, and a willful disregard of the concerns that have been voiced by tens of thousands of Americans.  Let’s fix this problem now.