Chronic Pollution From Offshore Drilling — How Bad Is It?

Nobody really knows.

And that’s a ridiculous state of affairs in the 21st century.  Almost 5 years after the BP spill riveted everyone’s attention on the risks of offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, we’re still relying almost entirely on pollution reports submitted to the government by the polluters themselves who are, of course, subject to fines and other sanctions for those spills. Evidence of non-reporting and chronic under-reporting of oil spills was uncovered by our 2012 analysis of NRC reports and comparison with satellite imagery, an analysis recently validated in a peer-reviewed study published by scientists at Florida State University.

And just today, the Associated Press published a jaw-dropping, in-depth story and video describing the chronic Taylor Energy oil leak a few miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico that’s been steadily oozing oil into the Gulf since 2004. This is a site that our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, researchers at Florida State, and tireless pilot and biologist Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care have documented repeatedly since we first “discovered” it on satellite imagery back in the spring of 2010.  Yet even industry folks were surprised when AP reporters contacted them about the ongoing, apparently unfixable Taylor Energy leak.


Some information is better than none, but the unverified and demonstrably inaccurate information we get is not a credible foundation for building public policy governing offshore oil and gas development.

Offshore Drilling: 5 Years After BP, How Bad Can A Spill Be?

This is the week that everyone will be rolling out their “5 Years After the BP Spill” stories. Scientists  are pointing out how much we still don’t understand about the spill and its long-term impacts; environmental groups are warning that little has changed and we’re just as close to disaster now as we were on April 19, 2010; the federal government is announcing new rules to assure us that new drilling off the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic Ocean will be safe; industry is touting new containment technology to respond on the seafloor to any future loss of well control.

Some good news, some warnings that we’ve got a ways to go before we can relax when it comes to deepwater, high-pressure offshore drilling.  One of our concerns is that despite the new containment technology — which is designed to stop a runaway well if we have another scenario very similar to BP’s infamous Macondo well — we’re still inept when it comes to cleaning up oil once it hits the water. The government’s estimate is we only managed to recover, burn, chemically disperse or divert 25% of the oil that gushed from Macondo.

Why does this matter?

Because we can’t confidently predict what will cause the next catastrophic oil spill. We’re always surprised when it happens.  Maybe it will be the sinking of a fully loaded FPSO.  Maybe it will be a seafloor landslide, like the one that hit the Taylor Energy platform, that wipes out a deepwater production hub connected to dozens of high-pressure wells.  The abandonment of a deepwater well last week by Cobalt Energy is an example.  In this case, they detected the failure of a seal on the riser pipe, and abandoned drilling before the well hit the reservoir target.  Call that a successful failure, if you will. But if the well had already been in production, what would the worst-case scenario spill look like if there had been a total loss of well control?

Here is the worst-case discharge (WCD) summary from Cobalt’s federally approved oil spill response plan for their North Platte prospect. Note that “mbo” = thousands of barrels of oil.

The top-kill operation presumably envisions using one of the new well-containment “capping stack” devices.  In that scenario, where the well doesn’t naturally bridge over by clogging itself with debris, it could take 30 days to successfully kill the well, resulting in a worst-case spill of 605,000 barrels of oil.  That’s 25.4 million gallons of oil in the water.  If we’re going to continue to push into deeper water, farther offshore, with wells tapping high-pressure reservoirs miles below the seafloor, maybe we should put a lot more effort into figuring out how to effectively clean up spilled oil.

If we can’t — or just plain won’t — do that, then we shouldn’t be drilling where the consequences of failure are high.

Stuff Breaks.

Today we almost overlooked a little news item: Cobalt Energy, a relatively new and self-described “boutique” company working on the bleeding edge of deepwater oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico (targeting the highly challenging, and ultradeep, “subsalt” play), had to abandon an appraisal well they were drilling more than 150 miles out in the central Gulf of Mexico.  The drilling was being done to assess the potential of their “North Platte” prospect, in water about 4,800 feet deep.

The well had reached a depth of over 20,000 feet and was being drilled from a ship called the Rowan Reliance. This was a very expensive well to abandon.
© Vladimir Knyaz

So what happened? According to this terse news account, there was a failure of a seal in the riser — the pipe that extends from the seafloor up to the drillship. Luckily in this instance we don’t expect any spill to result from this accident, but it’s a stark reminder: stuff breaks. Mechanical failures and human mistakes are inevitable, with increasingly high stakes as offshore drilling pushes ever deeper.

We can, and do, build incredible things in our pursuit of oil and gas.  But in water more than a mile deep, with high-pressure wells extending miles below the seafloor…will we be able to fix them when they break?

Position of the drillship Rowan Reliance on April 10, 2015, showing location of the abandoned deepwater appraisal well in Cobalt Energy’s North Platte prospect. Existing platforms and pipelines shown in orange. Seafloor topography indicated by shaded relief.
Detail of AIS vessel tracking data showing the location of the Rowan Reliance on April 10, 2015. The track shows it arrived in the area in mid-January, and apparently drilled a well at a location a few miles northeast of the failed appraisal well.  AIS data copyright exactEarth / ShipView.


Fire at Pemex Oil Platform in the Gulf of Mexico

Before dawn on Wednesday morning an explosion at an offshore oil processing platform in the Gulf of Mexico lit up the sky just north of the Yucatan Peninsula. Over 300 workers were evacuated from the facility, but the explosion claimed four lives and injured 45.

Pemex, Mexico’s state-run oil company, reports that the fire at the Abkatun-A Permanente platform was extinguished late Wednesday and that there is no risk of a major oil spill. The platform involved was a processing facility rather than an oil well or drilling rig, therefore the risk of a blowout and uncontrolled oil spill should be relatively small.

This latest disaster, however, is a reminder that the Gulf of Mexico has seen two of the world’s largest accidental oil spills; the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 (at least 210 million gallons spilled) and the Ixtoc I disaster in 1979 (140 million gallons spilled). The Ixtoc I disaster, though widely forgotten and dwarfed by the more recent spill on the U.S. side of the Gulf, also occurred in Campeche Sound only 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to the northwest of yesterday’s explosion. Ixtoc I was also operated by Pemex.

We have reviewed the publicly available satellite imagery from MODIS and Landsat, and so far have not observed any oil slick associated with this incident. However, on a MODIS image from Wednesday afternoon we did observe a very prominent plume of black smoke extending over 100 km (60 miles) to the northwest.

The reddish-orange spots on the near-infrared image are gas flares, a permanent fixture in this oilfield according to our global flaring map. The MODIS image from this morning is cloudier than yesterday, but the smoke plume is significantly smaller and whiter. The smaller plume is consistent with Pemex’s claim that the fire has been extinguished, or at least contained.

Checking the datafeed from the European Space Agency’s new Sentinel 1A radar satellite, we found that an image had been collected on April 1, the day of the explosion. Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) is very useful for spotting oil slicks, but the dark patterns on this image appear to be small, miscellaneous oil slicks commonly observed in this busy offshore oil field. Metal objects, such as ships and oil platforms, are highly reflective and appear as bright white spots. You can easily see from the constellation of metal objects just how crowded this oil field is with ships, workboats, oil platforms, and other infrastructure.

We also took a look back in time at Landsat, and while the most recent images were cloudy, we found a clear image from February revealing what business-as-usual looks like in this shallow offshore field. Flaring is clearly visible from a number of platforms, as are small but numerous slicks.

We will continue to keep a close eye on this story as it develops, and you can too using NASA’s Worldview portal for MODIS imagery. It appears that Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 will not be in position to collect another image for more than a week. Let us know if you see anything interesting by commenting on this blog post.