What’s Going On at the BP / Deepwater Horizon Spill Site?

We’ve been closely following recent developments at the site of BP’s disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  There’s been a nagging stream of sightings of small oil slicks in the vicinity since August 2011, more than a year after the failed Macondo well was killed and plugged.  We documented these “mystery slicks” on radar satellite images taken on August 30, 2011 and possibly again on September 11, 2011. Aerial overflights by On Wings of Care captured photos and video confirming the presence of these thin oil slicks. As we stated in our blog at that time,

Some have suggested that crude oil from the reservoir 8,000′ below the seafloor might be working its way up through faults and fractures in the bedrock, or along the Macondo wellbore.  If that happens we would expect to see “seepage on steroids” as oil works its way to the seafloor along multiple pathways and floats up to the ocean surface to form persistent oil slicks.

Rainbow oil sheen in vicinity of BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill site, photographed by Bonny Schumaker during low-level overflight on October 5, 2012. Photo courtesy On Wings of Care.

At the time this seemed highly unlikely to me.  Yet, just a few months later, Chevron lost control of a deepwater exploration well off the coast of Brazil and something remarkably similar to this scenario unfolded. Now we think it is possible that the recurring small slicks near the Macondo site might be caused by oil that leaked out of the well into surrounding bedrock during the months-long blowout, before the well was killed and cemented from top to bottom.  Some oil could have escaped either via cracks and holes scoured into the severely stressed well casing, or through the pressure-relief “burst disks” that were an intentional, and controversial, part of the Macondo well design (for more details read Joel Achenbach’s excellent book, ‘A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea‘).  If this scenario actually did happen, the residual oil is gradually migrating to the seafloor through existing natural fractures and faults in the bedrock, as it did in the Chevron incident off Brazil; and is seeping out of the seafloor into the water, floating up to the surface as droplets of oil and possibly oil-coated bubbles of natural gas; and forming thin slicks, behaving very much like the many natural oil seeps scattered throughout the Gulf.  Eventually this residual oil will work through the system and this artificially induced “seepage” will decline, as it did in the Brazil example (Chevron has also placed structures on the seafloor to capture the oil leaks off Brazil).

But is this actually happening at the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill site?

A series of recent slick sightings, again documented by pilot Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care beginning on September 14, raise the possibility. There are known natural oil seeps in the general vicinity that were identified and mapped by scientists at Florida State University long before the BP spill in 2010, but the closest of these is about  2.9 miles southeast, 3.1 miles south, and 4.9 miles northeast of the plugged Macondo well. BP suggested the slicks were caused by residual oil leaking from the wreckage on the seafloor: the massive Deepwater Horizon rig, the 5,000 feet of tangled riser pipe, the failed and discarded containment devices and other pieces of equipment. In October, BP plugged the cofferdam / containment dome device that had been used in the first failed attempt to stop the Macondo spill, claiming that leftover oil leaking out of this device had been the source of the recent oil slicks. But additional slicks sighted in the area on November 2 and November 9 caused the Coast Guard to order BP to deploy more ROVs to once again investigate the site and try to identify the source of oil for the mystery slicks. BP did so in mid-December, and the Coast Guard released four low-resolution videos of that inspection operation.  The videos were apparently shot on December 11-14, 2012.  We haven’t watched them all but BP and the Coast Guard claim they discovered no signs of leakage from the Macondo well or the two relief wells, or from any of the wreckage.  But this doesn’t address the question of possible leakage from the seafloor in the vicinity, the scenario that Chevron caused off Brazil.

The only way to answer that question is to conduct a systematic survey of the seafloor itself, not just the wellheads and wreckage.  Frankly, I think in all likelihood BP has already done this, so it should be a relatively simple matter of asking them to publish a report on the results, all of the video and other data they collected, and a map showing the survey grid they executed. If a thorough seafloor survey hasn’t been done yet, then it’s time for the Coast Guard to insist, to solve this mystery in a publicly transparent way that eases everyone’s fears. 

Best of 2012: Top 10 Most-Viewed Posts

As we look forward to all that 2013 has in store, we also look back fondly on all that we have accomplished in 2012. So as we dive right into the new year, here are our “Top 10” most viewed blog posts from 2012.

#10: Gas Drilling Time Series Analysis in Pennsylvania

August 7, 2012 – 718 Views:
Using aerial survey images from the US Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Imaging Program (NAIP), we looked at the way new wells and infrastructure are changing the landscape in rural southwestern Pennsylvania. Using aerial images to track development of natural resources and compare with  information from state and industry sources is at the very core of what we do here at SkyTruth.

#9: Wildfires and Gas Wells – Pine Ridge Fire, Colorado

June 28, 2012 – 753 Views: 
As wildfire season kicked off in the Western US, we were particularly interested in the proximity of gas wells to active wildfires. While natural gas infrastructure is notoriously leaky, the Grand Junction Sentinel reported that gas operators in the Pine Ridge area shut in their wells as the fire approached so as not to risk adding to the blaze.
November 1, 2012 – 821 Views:
In order to coordinate relief efforts and assess damages, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) coordinates aerial image surveys after natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. These images are made available to the public as soon as they are processed, and we compiled a few sets of images that illustrated the sheer power of the storm. While the twisted, submerged wreckage of a roller coaster hints at the power of the storm,  nothing quite tells the story like seeing the complete rearrangement of the landscape from our perspective in the sky.

#7: Gas Well Blowout in the North Sea

March 28, 2012 – 835 Views:
A blowout at an off-shore rig drilling for natural gas in the Elgin field (located in the North Sea between Scotland and Norway) garnered some attention in March. The leak turned out to be on the rig itself, not underwater, but we observed some kind of spill on the surface around the rig. The spill is most likely gas condensate, a signifiant byproduct of drilling in that region of the North Sea.

#6: Meet the Frack Family

June 8, 2012 – 999 Views:
Our next most popular post was not documenting a spill, but was about a fictitious Pennsylvania family. Based on data from a voluntary industry report about the chemicals used in a typical hydraulic fracturing job in the Marcellus Shale, we created a 3D visualization of volume of various chemicals used in the process. We also pointed out the substantial number of chemicals which industry claims are “trade secrets” and were not identified at all – symbolized by the large quantity of red barrels.
Sept. 14, 2012 – 1013 Views: 
Following up on our work with voluntary industry reports on the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, we compiled all of the data voluntarily reported to the industry-funded disclosure website FracFocus.org. Adding up the millions of gallons of water, we found that it would take over 24 hours for all of the water reportedly used for hydraulic fracturing to flow over one of North America’s Seven Natural wonders: Niagara Falls. This was also reposted to our partners at EcoWatch.org, where we used this calculation to represent Central Park covered by 240 feet of toxic waste-water.
Jan. 20, 2012 – 1,102 Views: 
A blowout off the coast of Nigeria got some major attention, but thankfully the natural gas well did not produce as large a spill as was possible. We noted the heat of the burning rig on infrared composite images, but radar satellite images showed only a small slick. Not all of the data we use is available to the general public for free, but some images, such as this infrared composite, are freely available from NASA for anyone to look at.
Nov. 14, 2012 – 1,582 Views:
We heavily promoted the release of our fracking chemical database to the national media and to our partners. This resource will greatly aid policy discussion about disclosure regulations and aid in research on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing across a wide-range of disciplines. While the database is most useful to researchers and decision makers, this database enables everyone to sign up for SkyTruth Alerts whenever new fracking chemical reports are uploaded to FracFocus.org.
Jan. 17, 2012 – 1,669 Views: 
Our most popular posts  are usually related to pollution incidents, and the rig fire off the coast of Nigeria in January was no exception. While our report on the 20th of January (#4 on this list) had more detailed analysis of the incident, this preliminary post gained over 500 more views. Not only do we have the capacity for detailed tracking of environmental incidents, rapid access to satellite images allows us to respond quickly to breaking news. Unfortunately, one of our best resources, the European Space Agency’s Envisat, unexpectedly went silent in April. We are looking forward to the launch of its replacement, Sentinel 1, sometime this coming year. 
March 8, 2012 – 4,630 Views:
Our most viewed post of 2012 was nightime imagery of natural gas flaring in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Shale. Because the main focus of drilling in the Bakken is for highly profitable oil, most of the natural gas that’s also being produced is flared off (burned) as a waste product. Much better options are to inject it back into the reservoir, or capture it for sale. After all, why are we drilling and fracking for natural gas in the Rockies and the mid-Atlantic, while we’re just wasting it in North Dakota? Expect to see more from us on the issue of flaring in 2013 as we work with a new dataset of nighttime light detection from NASA.


New Zealand: As seen in an infrared composite image taken by NASA’s Terra Satellite less then 5 hours after they became the first major city to welcome 2013. Using resources just like this, we will continue to keep a vigilant eye on the earth for years to come.                                                              Source: NASA MODIS
In 2013, SkyTruth will continue to provide up-to-date information on pollution incidents and reveal the truth about the environmental impact of large-footprint industrial activities such as mining, drilling, commercial fishing, etc. In all of this, we work to support scientifically credible research and policy decisions that will help us understand and manage our planet’s natural resources in the best way possible.