Oil Slicks off Mumbai, India

[UPDATE October 9, 2013 – This news article indicates the reported pipeline spill actually occurred on the coast, not offshore. So now we’re not sure what was the source of the extensive slicks on the MODIS satellite images.]

This morning we saw a brief news report noting that Indian authorities reported a “small” oil spill from an offshore pipeline off the coast of Mumbai.  This pipe carries oil ashore from one of India’s largest producing oil fields, the Mumbai (Bombay) High field.  It’s not the first time this pipeline has had problems.

This MODIS/Terra satellite image taken on October 8, 2013 clearly shows oil slicks in the Arabian Sea scattered throughout a 66-mile-long northwest-trending belt ranging about 50 to 100 miles offshore.  We don’t know for sure if these slicks are related to the pipeline spill.  We’ve seen smaller slicks in the area in the  past, from other causes.  But these slicks seem to be generally in the right area to correspond to this recent pipeline problem, and their alignment is compatible with the wind blowing from the northwest.  If anyone can provide an accurate latitude/longitude coordinate for the exact location of the pipeline failure, that would be very helpful.

MODIS/Terra satellite image taken October 8, 2013, showing apparent oil slicks in the Arabian Sea off the west coast of India near Mumbai. Image courtesy NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team.  Analysis by SkyTruth.

If these slicks are all attributable to the pipeline failure, we don’t think this was a “small” oil spill as reported by an unnamed company official:  the two largest patches of slick at the northwest (upwind) end cover a total area of about 324 km2.  Assuming a conservative minimum average slick thickness of 1 micron, those two patches amount to about 85,500 gallons of oil.  The US Coast Guard classifies that as a “medium” sized oil spill.  If the stringy, scattered area of slicks at the southeast (downwind) end are added in, the amount likely exceeds the 100,000-gallon threshold for being classified as a “major” offshore oil spill.

The MODIS/Aqua image taken on October 7 also shows these slicks, although they are partly obscured by clouds.

Tropical Storm Karen Building in Gulf of Mexico

It’s been a relatively quiet hurricane season in the northern Gulf so far this year – knock on wood – but right now a tropical storm is gaining strength and moving north off the Yucatan Peninsula and into the central part of the Gulf. The current forecasts show Karen strengthening to Category 1 (the weakest level of hurricane) sometime late Friday night as the storm center reaches the offshore oil platforms and pipelines, and making landfall along the Gulf coast near Mobile, Alabama early Sunday morning.  But of course, this could change, so get the latest info from the National Hurricane Center

Here are two maps showing the latest forecasts for the track of the center of the storm and the “cone of uncertainty” for that track; and the probability of tropical storm-force winds over the next 5 days.  We’ve overlain the offshore oil and gas infrastructure: platforms are shown as orange dots, seafloor pipelines as thin orange lines: 

Forecast track (black line) for center of tropical storm Karen. Pale blue envelope shows cone of uncertainty for the centerline.  Offshore oil and gas platforms are orange dots; seafloor pipelines are thin orange lines.  Forecast data from NOAA/NWS/NHC.
Forecast showing probability of tropical storm-force winds occurring over the next 120 hours. Offshore oil and gas platforms are orange dots; seafloor pipelines are thin orange lines.  Forecast data from NOAA/NWS/NHC.

We’re hoping, as always, for minimal damage and no injuries as Karen makes her way through. And that we won’t see much pollution from storm damage to offshore and coastal oil and petrochemical facilities, as we did after Isaac, Ike, Katrina and Rita.  

Those were all much stronger storms than a Category 1 hurricane, so we’re hopeful Karen will leave no such damage in her wake.

2010 BP Spill in Gulf of Mexico – How Big Was It?

Final moments of the doomed Deepwater Horizon drill rig, April 22, 2010.

A judge in New Orleans is now pondering a big-money question: how big was the 2010 BP oil spill?  Exactly how much oil gushed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico throughout the relentless summer of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil (and gas) disaster?  The Summer of Spillcam? 

Thar she blows:  BP spill cam, May 30, 2010.

Despite the government shutdown, lawyers from the federal Department of Justice are duking it out in court against a team of BP attorneys.  At stake: billions of dollars in fines levied under the Clean Water Act, which are calculated based on the amount that was spilled.  The feds say BP spilled 4.2 million barrels (176.4 million gallons); BP says it was much less, about 2.45 million barrels (102.9 million gallons).  If the judge rules that BP has to pay the full $4300 fine per barrel for gross negligence, that’s a whopping difference of $7.5 BILLION.  Congress passed a law called the RESTORE Act that will send 80% of the fine to the affected Gulf states, in part to conduct ecosystem restoration projects to repair damage from the spill; if BP’s lower number prevails, that’s $6 billion less for restoration work.

SkyTruth played a part during the spill to shed light on how bad it actually was.  When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in flames, we began collecting and analyzing daily satellite imagery, and publishing maps of the growing oil slick.  A Gulf oceanographer, Dr. Ian MacDonald (then at Texas A&M, now at Florida State), saw our images and slick-size measurements and suggested that BP and Coast Guard estimates of the flow-rate of oil from the well must be far too small to result in such a large and rapidly expanding oil slick. On April 27, 2010 – three days after the Coast Guard announced the Macondo well was leaking – we published on this blog our first estimate that the flow rate was at least 20,000 barrels (840,000 gallons) per day: 20 times greater than BP and the Coast Guard were saying.

Here’s a timeline of the flow-rate estimates made for the Macondo well in the first two weeks of the spill (some of the links to news accounts may no longer work). 

  • 4/22 – Deepwater Horizon rig sinks; Coast Guard estimates “up to” 8,000 barrels per day (bpd) is leaking – source
  • 4/23 – Coast Guard reports no leaking at all from the damaged well – source
  • 4/24 – Coast Guard reports well is leaking, estimates 1,000 bpd – source
  • 4/25 – BP repeats 1,000 bpd estimate – source
  • 4/27 – 1,000 bpd still the official Coast Guard and BP estimate – source
  • 4/27 – SkyTruth and Dr. Ian MacDonald publish first estimate that spill rate is 20,000 bpd – source
  • 4/28 – NOAA weighs in and raises the official estimate to 5,000 bpd based on aerial surveys “and other factors”; BP disputes this higher estimate – source
  • 4/29 – Coast Guard and NOAA repeat their estimate of 5,000 bpd – source
  • 4/29 – BP’s Chief Operating Officer admits new estimate of 5,000 bpd may be correct; “He said there was no way to measure the flow at the seabed and estimates have to come from how much oil makes it to the surface” – source
  • 5/1 – SkyTruth and Dr. Ian MacDonald publish revised estimate of at least 26,500 bpd – source
  • 5/1 – Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen “acknowledged there was no way really to know the extent of the leak” – source – and stated that “Any exact estimate is probably impossible at this time” – source
  • 5/1 – Coast Guard and NOAA cease estimating the rate of the spill. BP continues to use 5,000 barrels per day as their estimate of the spill rate.

On May 19, NOAA and the USGS convened a panel of scientists, dubbed the Flow Rate Technical Group, to measure the flow rate using several different approaches.  On May 27, more than one month into the disaster, they issued their first preliminary estimate of the spill rate.  Subsequent estimates were much greater; their final estimate was a flow rate of 62,000 barrels per day at the beginning of the spill, tapering back to 53,000 barrels per day by the time the well was finally capped on July 15, 2010.  Some, including scientists on the Flow Rate Technical Group, claim even these numbers are too low.  

So watch closely. The judge will be bombarded by highly technical expert-witness testimony from both sides.  The complexity, and lack of absolute certainty with any indirect measurement technique, favors BP: it’s likely the judge will ultimately make some kind of compromise, and the final for-the-record number will be based on a mix of politics, confusion and fatigue more than on actual science.