August 30 Oil Slicks In Gulf – Closest Facilities

Tropical Storm Lee is drenching the Gulf and has put the kibosh on any Gulf Monitoring Consortium investigations for the next few days (even radar satellite images will be screwed up by the heavy rain and gusty winds), so we’ll have to wait and see what next week brings.  In the meantime, one of our Facebook friends (thanks Judson!) prompted us to give a little more info about the oil and gas facilities closest to the August 30 oil slicks (shown as orange dots on this image):

BP’s Horn Mountain platform – located in Mississippi Canyon Block 127 about 8 miles east-southeast of the August 30 slicks, this manned “spar” structure was installed in 2002.  It is connected to the Destin natural gas pipeline system that was shut down on August 30 because it was producing too much liquid.

Exxon’s Mica subsea manifold – located in Mississippi Canyon Block 211 about 8 miles south-southwest of the August 30 slicks.  This structure on the seafloor produces oil and gas that is transported by pipeline to the Pompano platform about 27 miles away.  This “subsalt” discovery marked a milestone in Gulf production.

We don’t have any information that either of these facilities is experiencing any problems, but they are both closer to the August 30 oil slicks than the BP / Deepwater Horizon site, which is about 15 miles away.

Radar Satellite Image Shows Oil Slicks Seen August 30

An Envisat ASAR satellite radar image of the Gulf taken at about 10:50 pm local time on August 30 shows distinctive slicks corresponding with video and photos taken during an overflight earlier that day by Bonny Schumaker / On Wings of Care.  This image is complicated – NOAA/NODC data buoys in the area recorded very low wind speed (2-3 meters/sec) when the satellite passed overhead, near the lower limit for oil slick detection.  The thin spaghetti-like strands of dark slick throughout this area are most likely tendrils of natural surfactants that commonly appear on low-wind radar images of the ocean surface.  But the size, shape and appearance of a 14-mile-long slick that seems to originate at the 23051 Site matches many observations we’ve made on satellite imagery since we discovered a chronic leak at that location. And the large dark patch at the location of the August 30 overflight apparently confirms Bonny’s observations with an area of slick covering about 122 square kilometers. Given a minimum observable thickness on radar of 0.1 microns under these low-wind conditions, that would represent a minimum of 3200 gallons of oil.

First, here’s what the August 30 radar looks like.  The Mississppi Delta is the bright birds-foot pattern on the left edge of the image.  Water is medium-gray; slicks are black:

Envisat ASAR image taken August 30, 2011 about 10:50 pm local time. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Here’s the same chunk of image with markers showing the chronically leaking 23051 site, the Deepwater Horizon wreckage site, and the location of Bonny’s August 30 oil slick photos and video. Seafloor pipelines in yellow; recently troubled Destin pipeline shown in brown; active oil and gas platforms and other structures, including seafloor manifolds, are orange dots; natural seep locations are green dots:

Same area with features of interest marked. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Zooming in, here’s the August 30 radar image again showing a distinct patch of slick about 16 miles northeast of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill site.  Orange dots are active oil and gas production facilities (platforms, manifolds):

Detail from Envisat ASAR image taken August 30, 2011 about 10:50 pm local time. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Same area with other features marked for reference (pipelines in yellow, natural seeps are green dots). The brown highlighted pipeline is part of the Destin gas pipeline network, operated by BP, that was coincidentally (?) shut down on August 30:

Detail from Envisat ASAR image taken August 30, 2011 about 10:50 pm local time. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Here’s what the same patch of Gulf looked like on a radar image taken four days earlier, on August 26.  A small, 4-mile-long slick is visible just above the word “wreckage” – it’s about equidistant from a subsea manifold in the area and a couple of natural seeps, so either of these could be the source.  But this slick doesn’t seem related to the large patch observed on August 30:

Detail from Envisat ASAR image taken August 26, 2011. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

As usual, we’ll keep looking at this area as we get new imagery and information, and will let you know what we learn.

Oil Slicks Sighted Yesterday 16 Miles from BP / Deepwater Horizon Spill Site

Bonny Schumaker from On Wings of Care has been very busy flying the Gulf lately.  Yesterday she flew out over the site of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  About 16 miles northeast of the spill site, she ran across extensive oil slicks that look to us like a lot more than the typical natural oil seep normally produces.  Check out her report with a photo gallery and video.

There is a known seep location less than 2 miles to the south.  The nearest oil platform is 8 miles to the east; the closest pipeline is >5 miles to the northeast.  MODIS satellite images taken yesterday afternoon showed nothing unusual in the area, and the most recent radar image for the site was taken back on August 26.  We’ll keep looking and let you know what we learn.

Oil slicks on August 30, 2011 about 16 miles northeast of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill site. Photograph courtesy Bonny Schumaker / On Wings of Care.
Location of oil slicks documented by Bonny Schumaker on August 30, 2011. BP oil spill site (Deepwater Horizon wreckage) shown for reference.
Map showing August 30 flight line (pale blue), seafloor oil and gas pipelines (yellow), oil and gas platforms (orange dots), natural oil seeps (green dots), and BP oil spill site relative to slicks observed on August 30. Backdrop is shaded-relief bathymetry (seafloor “topography”).

BP Reports Leaking Abandoned Well in Gulf of Mexico

BP is reporting that they’ve observed “sheen” at the surface in the central Gulf of Mexico near two abandoned exploration wells; on August 14 someone reported to the NRC that fluid was observed leaking from one of these wells on the seafloor from an ROV (remotely operated vehicle, i.e. unmanned submarine). This is in Green Canyon Block 363, about 170 miles southwest of the site of the unrelated BP / Deepwater Horizon spill last summer:

Map showing recent report of leaking abandoned well in Green Canyon area of central Gulf of Mexico (click to enlarge). Site of BP’s oil spill last summer, and an ongoing chronic leak from cluster of wellsdamaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 (23051 site) are shown for reference.

Yesterday’s MODIS satellite imagery is partly cloudy in the area and not useful.  We’re trying to get a look at some European Space Agency radar satellite imagery (because the US doesn’t have any civilian radar satellites!) and will let you know what we find.  Data from our oceanographer friends at Florida State University show a possible natural oil seep just 2 miles from the reported well site, so the surface sheen here might be natural.

But if it’s true that an abandoned well is leaking, some things to think about:

  • This well is probably no more than 5 years old (drilled in 2007).
  • An AP investigation last year revealed there are already more than 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf, many of them much older than that.
  • These abandoned wells in the Gulf are never inspected to ensure they were properly plugged.
  • A significant percentage of abandoned wells onshore are not properly plugged, or develop problems that require “re-plugging,” often at taxpayer expense.

By the way, these wells are in the “Bushwood” prospect, in deep water about 100 miles offshore.  Yes, that’s right you Caddyshack fans – it was named after the infamous country club in that Bill Murray classic.  Maybe the gopher ate through their cement plug?

BP Spill Stopped One Year Ago Today – 5,000 Spills Since Then

July 15, 2010 was a day of relief for many – even for folks up here in West Virginia – after 2-1/2 months watching helplessly as oil and gas billowed relentlessly into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s runaway Macondo well. On that day one year ago, the final valve was carefully closed on an improvised “capping stack” that did the job after a string of heartbreaking failures. By that time an estimated 172 million gallons of oil had spewed directly into the Gulf, vastly exceeding the Exxon Valdez tanker spill of 1989 — making it the nation’s worst oil spill, and the world’s worst accidental spill.

Photo from “spill cam” showing oil flow shut off at last on July 15, 2010

After cumulatively covering an area the size of Oklahoma, the massive oil slicks on the Gulf’s surface began to dissipate almost immediately under the steady assault of evaporation, wind and wave action, biodegradation, photolysis, and cleanup efforts. We last observed significant oil slicks on satellite images taken July 28. But unknown amounts of oil and chemical dispersant lingered beneath the ocean’s surface, out of sight, with an uncertain fate and as-yet untallied environmental consequences.  What is clear is that this spill caused significant economic damage to the Gulf seafood and tourism industries, upsetting the lives and livelihoods of people as far away as Virginia. And oil from the spill continues to wash ashore along the Gulf coast.

Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass any new laws governing offshore drilling safety.  In fact, they are going backwards by reducing funding for government inspections and oversight — despite the fact that the oil industry itself requested more funding for BOEMRE, the agency that manages offshore drilling.

Other frustrations?  The lack of progress in creating a national oil spill cleanup capability that has a fighting chance against the next major spill; the continued reliance on chemical dispersants as an effective cleanup tool, despite evidence suggesting they may do more harm than good; our serendipitous discovery of a chronic, 7-years-and-counting leak that is continually polluting the Gulf; the regular occurrence of “mystery spills” that never get resolved; the laughable results of a system that naively hopes polluters will accurately report their spills; the lack of consistent fines for polluters, a moral hazard that encourages sloppy operations and risk taking, all but ensuring another major disaster.

Oh yeah, and the 5,100 new oil and other hazardous materials spills in the Gulf region reported to the National Response Center since July 15, 2010.  Here are the 3,000 reports that have enough usable location information for us to pinpoint them on a map:

NRC oil and hazardous materials spill reports, July 15, 2010 – July 15, 2011

The inevitable conclusion?  Concerned individuals and citizen’s groups, like our Gulf Monitoring Consortium, have to take it upon themselves to investigate, understand, and publicize what’s really going on with pollution and offshore drilling. You can help us by submitting your observations and photos to our Gulf Oil Spill Tracker site. And next week we’ll unveil the SkyTruth Alerts system, a continually updated interactive map of reported pollution incidents nationwide, onshore and off.