Lease Sale Cancellation near Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Conservation victories are often measured in terms of what did not happen. We measure them in terms of species that did not go extinct, of land clearing that did not take place, of anti-environmental legislation that did not become law.

This is another of those oblique victory stories about something that did not happen. If you’ve been following our work over the last year, you may have noticed that we’ve done some work monitoring the sale of oil and gas leases on public land in the vicinity of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. Most recently, we posted about a lease sale that was scheduled for March 8, 2018. Some of the proposed lease parcels included in this sale fell extremely close to the boundary of a 10 mile buffer zone around the park that had previously been established in agreement with local Native American tribes to protect the viewshed, soundscape, and visitor experience to the park, as well as the numerous Ancestral Pueblo ruins and artifacts found throughout this historically significant region. Oil and gas drilling in these parcels had the potential to impact the UNESCO World Heritage status of the park.

This map shows the 8 leases (in red) which were scheduled for auction on March 8, 2018. Lease parcels which were previously tabled for further review (in orange). The boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park are displayed in green.

On March 2, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that the lease sale scheduled for March 8 would be deferred, to give the agency time to “complete an ongoing analysis of more than 5,000 cultural sites in the proposed leasing area.” Zinke cited questions about the sale that had been raised by public stakeholders, stating “We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation.” It is important to note that these leases could come up for sale again in the future, but in the meantime, it is a comfort to enjoy this sale that did not happen. The deferral of oil and gas leases near Chaco Culture National Historical Park is an important reminder that public comment and protest have a very real power to help protect our public lands.

Pipeline Failure Cause of Fatal Oil Spill in Indonesia

An oil spill this weekend that caught fire in Balikpapan Bay, Indonesia, claimed the lives of five fishermen.  State authorities initially reported the fire was set intentionally by oil-spill responders in an attempt to burn it off, a claim that was later denied.

The bulk of the slick can be seen escaping the bay in these satellite images.  In this first image, one of Planet’s Dove satellites has captured variations in the thickness of the slick. We can see narrow, dark tendrils of oil surrounded by the lighter sheen and thinner layers of the slick. In places, the edges of the slick appear dark in contrast to the cleaner water as the oil smoothes out the surface by suppressing small wavelets produced by the wind. Even though the thinner layer of oil isn’t directly visible, we can still see the textural effect it has on the water’s surface, reducing the amount of sunglint (glitter) reflecting off the water:

PlanetScope image courtesy of Planet, April 2, 2018.

This often subtle difference in roughness between clean and oiled water is why the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is also an excellent tool for spotting slicks, as we can see in the image below. Radar distinguishes sharply between the smooth, oily water and the wind-rippled, clean water, and can see right through the clouds, giving us a clear view of the extent of the spill. This Sentinel 1 image was taken on April 1, one day before the Planet image, illustrating how the winds and current have moved the slick around:

Sentinel 1 image courtesy of European Space Agency, April 1, 2018. Bright spots in the water are vessels, most at anchor. 

Initially, authorities were zeroed in on a bulk cargo vessel, the Ever Judger, as the source of this spill.  We can understand why — the PlanetScope satellite image from April 2 shows the vessel anchored in Balikpapan Bay almost directly on top of one end of the slick:

Detail from PlanetScope image taken April 2, 2018, showing large red cargo ship near oil slick in Balikpapan Bay. Red dot at south end of ship shows the location of an AIS (Automatic Identification System) signal that was broadcast on April 1 from the bulk carrier Ever Judger. We assume the vessel has been anchored at this location. Image courtesy Planet.  AIS data courtesy ShipView / exactEarth.

But officials from Pertamina, the Indonesian state oil company, have come forward to say the spill was caused by the failure of a pipeline beneath the bay.  This pipe, installed in 1998, carries crude oil from a storage terminal on the west side of the bay to a refinery in Balikpapan.  We’ve looked for maps showing the route of this pipeline and, so far, struck out. Based on examination of the latest high-resolution imagery of the area in Google Earth (from October 2016), and knowing the locations of the terminal and the refinery (thanks to Google Maps), we’ve sketched in our best guess at where this pipeline may be located:

Map showing our best guess at the alignment of the pipeline that failed, resulting in fatal oil spill in Balikpapan Bay.

If anyone has more definitive information on this pipeline, or the precise location of the failure, please share!  Over the next few days we will continue to monitor this incident with satellite imagery, thanks to our friends at Planet and the European Space Agency.

[UPDATE April 5 – Pertamina claims the spill resulted when the Ever Judger dropped anchor without authorization in Balikpapan Bay, dragging and breaking their pipeline.]