Oil Spill Response Is A Joke

But not a very funny joke:

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Skimmer vessel working at Shell oil slick in Gulf of Mexico, May 15, 2016. Photo courtesy Dr. Ian MacDonald / Bonny Schumaker – On Wings of Care / EcoGig-2

Thank you, Shell, for demonstrating quite convincingly over the past 4 days that oil spill cleanup is nothing more than a convenient fantasy.  At about 11am local time last Thursday, Shell reported about 90,000 gallons of oil leaked from a pipeline 90 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico in the Glider field, one of their recent cutting-edge deepwater developments in water 3,400′ deep.  Oil from wells in the Glider field flows through a single pipeline to the Brutus tension-leg platform (TLP) about 7 miles away.  Apparently this innovative “cost-effective flow assurance method” sprang a leak.  Here are a few unfortunate things we’ve learned from this:

Pipeline leak detection is unreliable.  This spill was discovered accidentally by a helicopter pilot flying over the area who happened to spot the slick.  That’s right: a modern pipeline at a high-tech deepwater development project leaked thousands of gallons of oil, and that leak was accidentally discovered.  Not because high-tech telemetry on the pipeline signaled an alarm due to a drop in pressure; not because flow metering detected a difference between what was going in one end of the pipe vs. what was coming out the other.  How long would this leak have continued, if not for the sheer luck of having a vigilant pilot happening by? 

Oil spill response vessels grossly underperform. As of yesterday, 5 spill response vessels (4 oil skimming vessels and a work boat named the Harvey Express) were dispatched to tackle the slick as it drifted steadily west away from the source of the spill in Green Canyon lease block 248.  The first to arrive, a fast-response boat named the H.I. Rich, showed up about 11pm Thursday. Two other skimmers, Deep Blue Responder and  Louisiana Responder, arrived at 2am and 3am on Friday morning, May 13. The last one to the party, Mississippi Responder, took 26 hours to make it out to the slick, arriving at 11pm on the 13th. By that time the slick had drifted more than 30 miles away from the Glider field.

These skimmer vessels are rated to remove thousands of barrels of oily water per day: 12,500 bpd for the H.I. Rich, and a combined 39,220 bpd for the others.  At 42 gallons per barrel, that’s a total capacity of more than 2 million gallons per day for these 4 vessels.  Sounds pretty good, huh?  By noon on Sunday, based on the arrival times of the skimmer vessels that we tracked using their AIS broadcasts, more than 6 million gallons should have been collected and this 90,000 gallon oil spill should have been long gone.  

Yet on Sunday the Coast Guard reported only 50,000 gallons of “an oily-water mixture” had been recovered.  Video taken Sunday during an overflight by Dr. Ian MacDonald of Florida State University with pilot Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care shows thick stringers of emulsified oil in a slick several miles long, similar to what Greenpeace (pics) and our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partner Jonathan Henderson (video) encountered on Saturday.  Dr. MacDonald observed that the response vessels seemed to be missing the thickest parts of the slick and were generally making very little headway, despite operating under fairly calm conditions (average wind speed of 7 knots recorded at Brutus TLP over this time period), nearly ideal for oil cleanup operations.  
 

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AIS tracking map showing locations of spill-response vessels this morning (May 16). Data courtesy exactEarth/ShipView.

Federal permits for deepwater drilling rely on wishful thinking. Since the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill, companies applying to the federal government for permission to drill in our public waters are required to calculate a worst-case scenario oil spill should they, for example, lose all control of a well as BP did in 2010.  Then they must present a response plan that asserts they have the capacity and ability to adequately respond to that spill. The most recent plan [warning: humongous, unwieldy PDF file] for Green Canyon block 248, dating from 2013, envisions a worst-case spill averaging 15.3 MILLION gallons of oil per day — every day — for up to 92 days

The response plans to match these massive potential spills rely on oil skimmers performing at their rated capacity.  Yet by noon Sunday, after two full days of cleanup response with four of these vessels and 130 workers,  only 50,000 gallons of oil and (mostly) water had been recovered, possibly even worse than the performance of an older generation of skimmers during the BP spill in 2010.  Once again we see that in the real world, these vessels don’t perform anywhere near as well as they do in the fantasy world of offshore drilling regulation.

The upshot?  Our government is indulging in a troubling fantasy that is eagerly abetted by the oil industry and pro-drilling politicians, dressing up deepwater offshore drilling as a safe operation so they can continue to rubber-stamp permit applications that contain laughable oil-spill response plans.  But as Shell just demonstrated, this emperor has no clothes.  When will our government and the global oil industry wake up to this reality and get serious about oil spill response?  If the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill wasn’t a disaster big and costly enough to provoke a serious overhaul, then what will it take?  

On Thursday, The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on Capitol Hill to critique the federal government’s offshore oil and gas leasing program.  Expect to see pro-drilling politicians taking this opportunity to pound their fists and wag their fingers at government officials for not doing enough to accelerate the pace of offshore oil drilling.  You might even see a few unicorns and fairies sitting up on stage behind the politicians, nodding in agreement.  

Making Headlines: We’re On to Something!

It’s been a little more than two years since we first demonstrated the Global Fishing Watch prototype in public, and the media coverage hasn’t stopped. Since launching the prototype we’ve been featured in more than 100 publications on six continents, from the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal and International Business Times to media outlets in Russia, China, France, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and more. The attention is not only exciting, but extremely encouraging. Our Chief Technology Officer, Paul Woods, puts it this way; “The fact that you have so many people talking about Global Fishing Watch, a product that isn’t even available yet, is an indicator that there is a huge unmet need. There is a need for something that doesn’t exist yet.” In February, 2016, an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine opened with a cinematic recounting of one particular day in our offices.

Late on a January 2015 evening in Shepherdstown, W.Va., a data analyst named Bjorn Bergman, surrounded by whiteboards scribbled with computer code, was orchestrating a high-stakes marine police chase halfway around the world.-Palau vs. the Poachers, NY Times Magazine.

The story, which focused on illegal fishing, went on to describe the coordination of an international effort to track and capture the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33, a vessel we had discovered fishing without permission in the waters of Palau. Other media coverage has included commentary in National Geographic Voices, by conservation technologist and Emerging Explorer Shah Selbe who wrote:

The methods that we traditionally relied upon (to manage marine reserves) can no longer meet these protection needs, so there currently exists a massive demand for new tools and fresh ideas. . . The Global Fishing Watch prototype looks to be a great tool, and a strong step in the right direction when it comes to ocean information.

In a feature article in WIRED, W. Wayt Gibbs wrote:

Large commercial fishers are about to get a new set of overseers: conservationists—and soon the general public—armed with space-based reconnaissance of the global fleet. . . . now environmentalists are using sophisticated technology of their own to peel away that cloak of invisibility.

In addition to filling an unmet need, as Paul described, our partnerships with globally recognized leaders Google and Oceana have helped launch us into the headlines at a time of rising awareness and excitement for protecting our ocean resources. In the past three years alone, high-profile celebrities and philanthropic organizations such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Allen, the Packard Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have collectively contributed tens of millions of dollars to ocean conservation and fisheries management. Political recognition for ocean issues has also gained momentum in recent years. In 2008, the United Nations officially recognized June 8th as World Oceans Day, and in February 2014 by President Obama established of the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in the central Pacific Ocean.

“It’s great to see that people agree with us that this is a big deal,” says Paul, noting that it’s more than just a shot in the spotlight. We know what we’re doing is exciting, and we know it’s important, but a part of what’s so valuable about Global Fishing Watch lies in the crowdsourcing capability. Media attention like this is the best recruitment tool for users who are going to help elevate this platform to become one of the most robust resources for monitoring commercial fishing on the world’s oceans. We’re excited to see that happen. Below is a brief selection of the many articles that have featured Global Fishing Watch.

2016 (January-April)

Business Wire: Global Fishing Watch Enables Clear View of Fishing in Marine Protected Areas
Yale Environment 360: How Satellites and Big Data Can Help to Save the Oceans
Christian Science Monitor: SkyTruth spots environmental problems from space
Wall Street Journal: Indonesia Takes Explosive Approach to Illegal Fishing
New York Times Sunday Magazine: Palau Vs. the Poachers

2015

National Geographic: Tiny Team Uses Satellites to Bust Illegal Fishing Worldwide
National Geographic:11 Ways Technology Stops Crime Against Endangered Animals
EcoWatch: 15 Huge Ocean Conservation Victories of 2015
The Guardian: To catch a fishing thief, SkyTruth uses data from the air, land and sea
GovInsider: Open Dataset of the Week: Illegal fishing in Indonesia
Jakarta Post: Government Set to Improve Commercial Fishing Transparency
Fast Company: Inside The Satellite Detective Agencies That Catch The Companies Destroying The Planet—From Space
New York Times: Mapping the World’s Problems
Christian Science Monitor: How to free modern slaves: Three tech solutions that are working Part 5 of a series on human trafficking: Includes discussion of how GFW can combat slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry. “ . . . Outside of government, one of the most ambitious initiatives launched in recent years is Global Fishing Watch, an online platform that uses…”

2014

Wall Street Journal: Google, Partners Target Illegal Fishing with New Technology
Wired: The Plan to Map Illegal Fishing from Space
The Atlantic: Tracking Fishy Behavior from Space
PRI/BCC “The World”: (Radio) Google is teaming up with environmental groups to help fight illegal fishing
CNN: (Video): New Tool Monitors “Pirate” Fishing Boats
CBSN:CBS News: New System to Combat Global Overfishing
Bloomberg: Commercial Fishing Far Out Sea & Over the Horizon – Until Now
Forbes: Google Helps Map Illegal Fishing
Examiner.com: Setting the Watchdogs on Illegal Fishing with Global Fishing Watch
International Business Times: Google-Backed Satellite Project Aims To Track, Eliminate Illegal Fishing Around The World
Maritime Executive: New Google Tool to Track Global Fisheries: “Global Fishing Watch provides an unprecedented view of human interaction with the ocean”