FrackFinder: Mapping and Tracking Fracking Sites With Your Help

At SkyTruth, we work hard to make the unseen impacts of pollution and industrial development visible to the public. Our latest skytruthing effort is the FrackFinder. FrackFinder is a crowdsourced project to find, map, and track all sites where drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing (fracking), occurs in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania.

This project goes a step beyond plotting data from state and industry sources as “pins in a map,” because there is much more going on in the forests, fields, and public lands of the Marcellus Shale than a single point on a map can tell. There are many stages to the life of a well and drilling/fracking has a footprint far larger than just the individual well. Our tool utilizes the innovative concept of crowdsourcing to enable concerned citizens to easily look at thousand of images over multiple years, allowing them to contribute to scientific evaluation of shale gas issues and provide us with large quantities of reliable spatial information. Crowdsourcing, outsourcing the work of image analysis to volunteers (like yourself), is an integral part of our vision of skytruthing — where anyone can see the impact of human activity on our planet, and take action to protect the environment.

We are now launching the appropriately named Project TADPOLE. It is the first in a series of applications that make up the FrackFinder project. (Look out for different growth stages, and possibly different amphibians and reptiles, as our skytruthing project continues to evolve.)

Example of a drilling site with equipment, as shown in the TADPOLE crowdsourcing tool.
At this stage, we’ve gathered aerial survey photography taken by the National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP; the same high-resolution imagery used in Google Earth) in 2005, 2008, and 2010 and data extracted from drilling permits for fracking sites in the state of Pennsylvania. There are nearly 3,000 fracking sites across PA, and we are asking volunteers to classify the type of activity they see at these sites for each of the three years. That’s 9,000 separate image-analysis tasks. To ensure accuracy, we require each image to be viewed and classified by ten different volunteers. (Preliminary testing has provided us with impressive results; volunteers agree on what they see in an image 89% of the time.) This means there are 90,000 individual tasks — instances of an image being served up and classified — to be completed… Whew.
That’s where you come in!

Become a skytruther by participating in Project TADPOLE. First, please fill out our sign-up sheet so we can let you know how the project is progressing (we promise not to spam you). Then, go to Project TADPOLE and spend at least 20 minutes classifying drilling sites for us. And finally, we are still beta testing and we need your feedback so please tell us how your experience was on our Facebook page. 

We are continually improving Project TADPOLE and will be adding features such as a “finished” button to exit the tool. But please know that your work is saved as you go!

27-Mile-Long Slick Sighted in Deep Water Gulf of Mexico

Yesterday the National Response Center (NRC) received a report of a 3-mile-long slick in deepwater, at the extreme southeast corner of the Green Canyon protraction area of the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s 140 miles offshore and about 14 miles south of BP’s massive Atlantis oil platform.

We spotted a slick at that location on a MODIS/Aqua satellite image taken yesterday.  But it’s a lot bigger than reported: we measure a slick 27 miles long, covering 103 km2.  Assuming a thickness of 1 micron, this slick holds 27,192 gallons of oil (or some oily substance). The wind was out of the west at the time, and there are several known natural oil seep locations (shown as green dots) near the “upwind” end of the slick, so this may be an unusually large slick caused by natural seepage.

Possible oil slick (outlined) on MODIS/Aqua satellite image taken July 29, 2013. White patches are clouds. Known natural oil seep locations shown as green dots (data from Florida State University).  NRC pollution report shown as small red dot at center. Oil and gas production platforms are orange dots.

 

Judge Rules Waterkeeper Lawsuit Against Taylor Energy Can Proceed

So now maybe we’ll get some answers:  last week a judge threw out two motions filed by Taylor Energy to dismiss the lawsuit filed against them by Waterkeeper Alliance (one of the founding members of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium) for their chronic leak in the Gulf of Mexico that’s been spilling oil 24/7 from a cluster of wells damaged by Hurricane Ivan nearly 9 years ago.  Now this legal action can proceed.  

SkyTruth is not involved in the legal action, but we’ve been tracking this spill since we “discovered” it on satellite imagery during the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.  We’ve compiled a linked list of all the pollution reports for this incident that we could find at the Coast Guard’s National Response Center (mostly submitted as required by law by Taylor Energy or their contractors; some submitted by passers-by), all the direct observations and measurements of the slick on satellite images made by SkyTruth and recently by image analysts at NOAA, and observations from flyovers by Gulf Monitoring Consortium and On Wings of Care.  

We also attempted to estimate the cumulative amount of oil that has leaked into the Gulf since Hurricane Ivan.   

Now we have a powerful new tool to do offshore pollution monitoring, with the successful launch earlier this year of the Landsat-8 satellite.  These images, while not as frequently acquired, are much more detailed than the twice-daily MODIS satellite images we’ve been relying on.  

Here is what the Taylor slick looked like on a Landsat-8 image shot on June 18, 2013: 

Detail from Landsat-8 image showing 30-mile-long oil slick emanating from site of former Taylor Energy oil platform destroyed during Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, about 11 miles from tip of Mississippi Delta (green areas at upper left). Image taken on June 18, 2013. See below for measurement. Clouds and shadows at lower right and upper left.
Direct measurement of slick on June 8, 2013.

Our observation shows the slick was nearly 30 miles in length.  NOAA satellite experts agreed.  But on that same day — in fact, at 10am local time, almost exactly the moment the Landsat-8 satellite passed overhead and captured this image — Taylor Energy reported a slick that was 10 miles long.  Taylor does their observations by aerial overflight, so it’s possible their pilot just couldn’t follow the slick over the full 30 mile distance.  But this isn’t an unusual discrepancy:  we, working with researchers at Florida State University, have noted systematic under-reporting by Taylor, and by polluters in the Gulf in general.  

Polluters beware:  when the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite is launched, we’ll soon have radar imagery back in our monitoring toolkit.  That will open up a lot of new monitoring possibilities.  We’ll need a few more eyeballs looking at images around here to take advantage of these great new data sources, so if you’re interested in becoming a volunteer skytruther, or contributing to our work, please contact us! 

Hercules 265 Drill Rig in Gulf, Post-Fire

Yesterday the runaway gas well at the Hercules 265 jackup drill rig in the Gulf “bridged over” – essentially choked itself with sand, rock and other debris – shutting off the flow of natural gas, extinguishing the fire that had been burning since Tuesday night. Here is a post-fire photo of the rig.  The small production platform it had been working at is a total loss.  The jackup itself has sustained plenty of damage but it looks like much is still salvageable.  And a very small slick is visible next to the rig.

The main questions many folks are asking is — what happened to the blowout preventer?  Why did the BOP fail?  

When are those new BOP regulations that we’ve been talking about since the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster going to be implemented?  And would those new regs address the cause of failure in this incident? 

Post-fire photo of Hercules 265 jackup drill rig in South Timbalier Block 220, taken July 25, 2013. Photo from BSEE via gCaptain.



Drilling safety comes down to a lot of nitty gritty details.  But the BOP is a critical element of safety that deserves the highest level of attention.  It’s the main thing protecting us from the next major oil spill. 

And it’s way past time we implemented all of the recommendations made by the National Spill Commission in the wake of the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster.  With a renewed drilling boom underway in the Gulf, and the full-on resumption of high-risk, high-pressure deepwater drilling, we can’t afford not to.  

Hercules Drill Rig Fire on Satellite Image Today (Barely)

Underwhelming, but we think we see the plume of smoke from the burning Hercules 265 drill rig on today’s MODIS / Terra satellite image, taken at about 12:05 pm local time.  Clouds and heavy haze over much of the area today.  Winds were directly out of the west, so the small white patch on the east side of the rig location could be smoke rather than cloud (see detail below):

MODIS / Terra satellite image of Louisiana coast, July 24, 2013.
Detail from above.  Winds from west; possible smoke plume is indicated. 

 

Hercules Drill Rig Engulfed in Flames – Now What?

UPDATED 7/24/2013 3:10pm EDT with new photo, info on drilling permit.

At about 11pm Central time last night, the Hercules 265 jackup drill rig in the Gulf ignited.  It’s now engulfed in flames.  Options for controlling the gas blowout are now a lot more limited, since the rig can’t be occupied by well-control specialists.  Eventually the well might collapse on itself, “bridging over” and shutting off the flow of natural gas.  Otherwise a long and complicated intervention might be required, such as the drilling of a relief well — the solution required to kill BP’s runaway Macondo well in 2010, Chevron’s fatal blowout off Nigeria in 2012, and the months-long blowout and massive oil spill off Australia at the Montara platform in 2009.  Either way, the rig is certainly a total loss. 

Hercules 265 jackup drill rig on fire, July 24, 2013. Photo from US Coast Guard via the Times-Picayune.

We saw nothing unusual at the site on yesterday’s MODIS satellite images, which were taken in early afternoon, long before the fire began.  Today’s images might be more interesting, although we’re not expecting to see any significant slick on the water.  Luckily, this well was apparently just a gas producer.  Otherwise the situation could be gravely worse, from an environmental and economic perspective.  

We have questions, as usual:  

Why was this work being done?  The federal drilling permit, issued in June, notes that this was a bypass operation on an existing well (not a sidetrack as federal officials are saying).  But it gives no explanation for why the bypass was required.  Usually that’s an expensive, last resort fix for a serious technical problem with the well.  

Was the blowout preventer engaged?  If not, why not?  If so, why did it fail to do its job?  Should the feds speed up the implementation of new BOP standards?  Would these new standards have addressed the problem in this case?

Gas Blowout at Hercules Drill Rig, Gulf of Mexico

Around midday today a natural gas blowout occurred at a jackup drill rig, the Hercules 265, operating in shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana (South Timbalier Block 220).  All of the workers — more than 40 — were safely evacuated.  The rig was enveloped in a cloud of gas, so there is a high risk of fire or explosion until the well is killed.  A small sheen was reported around the platform – this is probably a thin slick of highly volatile natural-gas condensate.  At this time we have no reason to think there is potential for a significant oil spill from this incident.  But, coming hard on the heels of another blowout that happened in the Ship Shoal area last week, it’s yet another reminder that drilling is an inherently risky activity. 

Pilot Bonny Schumaker with On Wings of Care flew over the site today and took some amazing photos.  Here is one of them.  See many more on her blog

Hercules 265 jackup drill rig enveloped by cloud of gas from ongoing blowout. Photograph by Bonny Schumaker / On Wings of Care.