Offshore Drilling Safety & Transparency: Still Lacking

Here’s the latest guidance from the federal government to oil companies applying for new deepwater drilling permits. This document focuses on the two new well-containment devices rolled out last month, and mentions a new software tool BOEMRE is relying on to evaluate the risk posed by individual deepwater wells should they blow out. There is no link to the software so nobody can assess how robust it is; and, given BOEMRE’s silence on these topics, it seems likely that:

1) Neither of the well-containment devices we’re now relying on has actually been deployed and field-tested to see if it can reliably function in real Gulf deepwater conditions.

2) BOEMRE is ignoring oil spill cleanup technology, techniques and capacity, and is going forward with high-risk, high-pressure well permits in ultradeep waters far offshore, ensuring the same poor cleanup performance for the next major spill that we experienced with Exxon Valdez and the BP spill. (Recall that there could be 65 million gallons of oil spilled during the 2-3 weeks required to assemble and deploy one of the new containment devices, assuming they work perfectly on the first try.)

Assuming they actually do work, it is progress to have better well-containment options. Especially since we now know that blowout preventers – that previous bit of miracle technology we faithfully relied on – are fundamentally flawed by design, unable to reliably function at the fluid pressures and temperatures likely to be encountered in deep wells that go out of control.

But well containment is irrelevant for other risks that commonly cause major spills, like tanker accidents and intentional sabotage. Petrobras is developing their Cascade and Chinook deepwater oil and gas finds in the Gulf of Mexico using an FPSO (essentially a stationary oil tanker), the BW Pioneer, which can hold 25 million gallons. Other tankers will regularly unload crude from the Pioneer and shuttle it back to port (Galveston?). The Cascade and Chinook wells are 150 miles offshore in water 8,000-9,000 feet deep and drilled to total depth of 27,000 feet (for comparison, BP’s failed Macondo well that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig last April was just 40 miles offshore, in water 5,000 feet deep and drilled to total depth of 18,000 feet). Petrobras expects to initially produce 3.4 million gallons per day combined from its two wells. (BP’s Macondo well initially spilled 2.6 million gallons per day.)

This clip is a bit long, but Rachel Maddow got Noble Energy’s Regional Oil Spill Response Plan that accompanied their permit to resume deepwater drilling, the first permit BOEMRE approved since the BP spill. This plan should include cleanup details. The plan is dated September 2009, seven months before the BP spill, and includes no new information or plans, according to Maddow.

So how can BOEMRE express such confidence in the ability to safely and effectively respond to a worst-case spill scenario if we’re still relying on old cleanup plans that gave us scenes like this? And why is this information so difficult for us ordinary folks to come by?

Check Out Our Natural Gas & Oil Drilling Collection

Now that we’ve got our image gallery all organized and pretty, we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. We want to share our images with you and ask what you think. So without further ado, here is our biggest collection, Natural Gas and Oil Drilling. The images in this collection show the impacts of exploration, drilling, production, storage and transport of natural gas and oil. This gallery contains images of some beautiful Western landscapes too, like Valle Vidal, Raton Basin in New Mexico, shown here:

Valle Vidal

Or how about pictures from the the San Juan Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, where coalbed methane development has forever changed the landscape:

San Juan Basin coalbed methane (CBM) development

Take a look at our Upper Green River Valley, Wyoming set, then read more it in our blog posts.

Also in this collection are the Roan Plateau, Colorado set, with stunning visuals like this:

Roan Plateau, Colorado

But don’t stop there. There are 21 sets in this collection including the Pronghorn Roadkill Accident in the Jonah Gas Field of Wyoming; the Otero Mesa, in the Permian Basin of New Mexico; the Oil Sands/Oil Shale set; a simulation of proposed drilling in Grand Mesa, Colorado; and the Wyoming Range, Bridger-Teton National Forest.

There are images from the Montara Oil Spill off the coast of Australia in August of 2009, a blowout that provided us an unhappy preview of what can go wrong with offshore drilling:

Montara Oil Spill - August 25, 2009

Dirty Snow on the North Slope of Alaska:

North Slope - Winter 2006, Detail 3

And the tragic BP/Deepwater Horizon blowout in our own Gulf of Mexico almost a year ago:

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - FSU Sampling Cruise - June 22, 2010

Go check out these and many other images now at our SkyTruth Gallery. And we’ll be back with our next collection soon.

Gulf Spill – Source?

Coast Guard has tentatively identified a well damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as the source of the oil spill last weekend that came ashore in Louisiana. Located in West Delta Block 117, and operated by Anglo-Suisse, the spill reportedly occurred for a few hours last Saturday afternoon during operations to permanently plug and abandon the well.

Polluters are required to report any oil spills to the National Response Center, including the amount spilled. So what do the official pollution reports say? We checked the NRC database this morning and found only three reports that list Anglo-Suisse as the responsible party since last Wednesday (March 16). These reports show amounts spilled of 1.89 gallons, 1.33 gallons, and 0.5 gallons – a whopping total of 3.72 gallons spilled.

Can a 4-gallon spill of oil travel across 20 miles of the Gulf, come ashore across a 30-mile stretch of coast, and oil 1300 to 2700 feet of beach? Call us skeptical, but we don’t think so. If the Anglo-Suisse well in West Delta 117 really is the source of this pollution then they have significantly underreported the amount spilled. (And why shouldn’t they lowball it, if nobody is going to check up on their reports?) We’ve seen this before, at the continuing spill from the Taylor Energy site where a platform was taken out by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. This calls into question repeated claims of industry and politicians that oil pollution related to offshore production is minimal, because they’re using these same highly questionable reports to make this claim.

Or, Anglo-Suisse has reported their spill accurately. Then there must be another source of the oil that came ashore, and some say is still coming ashore.

We’ll keep looking.

Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico Last Weekend – Questions Remain

Still trying to pin down exactly what happened in the Gulf last weekend. The Coast Guard has reported that a well south of Grand Isle that was being plugged and abandoned leaked on Saturday for 4-6 hours for some reason, with oil showing up on the beaches of Grand Isle, Elmer’s Island and Fourchon. Cleanup is continuing although no new oil is washing ashore. [UPDATE 5:56pm – see pics of oil coming ashore].

Locations of interest mentioned in this post. Active oil and gas platforms are orange dots. Backdrop is MODIS satellite image taken March 19, 2011.

We’ve looked at low-resolution MODIS satellite images of the Gulf over the past few days and haven’t seen any signs of a large oil slick, although this aerial pic that was reportedly taken by the Jefferson Parish Department of Emergency Management appears to show a sizable oil slick, with relatively thick brownish-red stringers of weathered crude oil surrounded by thinner sheen. MODIS images aren’t always suitable for oil slick detection, so we’re still looking. At this time, yesterday’s images are mostly incomplete and don’t fully cover the affected area.

This morning we called the Coast Guard public affairs office in Louisiana to ask a simple question: where is this well located? The answer: “that is under investigation.” They couldn’t tell us the name of the platform, who the operator is, or even what protraction area it is in.

Some possibilities have been mentioned in various press accounts. This report claims the leaking well is at a hurricane-damaged platform operated by Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners, LLC. A 2006 news release from the former U.S. Minerals Management Service shows that Anglo-Suisse had a cluster of five platforms in West Delta Block 117, about 30 miles southeast of Grand Isle, that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Maybe the well was under one of those now long-gone platforms. That’s our bet: it’s close to Grand Isle, and satellite pics of the past few days show currents are sweeping masses of sediment-laden water from the Mississippi River through the West Delta 117 area and straight toward the beach. Any spilled oil at that location would most likely get caught up in that current.

But other reports hinted at problems at the site of the Matterhorn SeaStar platform, a state-of-the-art “mini Tension Leg Platform” owned by W&T Offshore, whose stock prices nosedived Friday. W&T issued this statement today claiming the the slick is not coming from Matterhorn or any of their other nearby facilities. The TLP was installed in 2003, in water 2800′ deep, in Mississippi Canyon Block 243 about 28 miles due west of the BP / Deepwater Horizon site and 80 miles east-southeast of Grand Isle.

Another possibility, not mentioned in any news accounts we’ve seen, is the platform that caught fire on March 6 and was evacuated. Located in Grand Isle Block 102, it’s about 50 miles due south of Grand Isle.

Meanwhile, oil is continually leaking from the site of a Taylor Energy platform (Platform 23051) that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan way back in 2004, and the Ocean Saratoga rig is back on site working to plug the leaks. You may recall we “discovered” that chronic leak during the massive BP spill last summer. Here’s a pic that Greenpeace took on Sunday of the oil slick there:

Photo of oil slick from chronic, ongoing leak at former site of Taylor Energy platform destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Ocean Saratoga drill rig is working to plug the leaks.

Lots of questions. Here’s one more: In the wake of the world’s worst accidental oil spill, can’t we manage our offshore resources better than this?

Third Deepwater Drilling Permit Issued for Gulf – Still No Spill Response Info

Third time’s definitely not the charm. BOEMRE just issued another permit for deepwater drilling in the Gulf, again to continue work on a well that was already underway, again with a sweeping statement of confidence:

“This permit approval demonstrates that deepwater drilling can and will continue in the Gulf of Mexico provided that operators have successfully demonstrated their ability to operate safely,” said BOEMRE Director Michael R. Bromwich.

And once again, the public version of this permit application submitted by ATP Oil & Gas Corporation contains no information at all about the estimated worst-case spill, the specifications and test results for the containment device that would be deployed in the event of a blowout, and the cleanup technology that will be employed to deal with a major spill. We assume from their letter to President Obama that the company provided this information to BOEMRE. So why can’t the public see this information too, so we can all share in BOEMRE’s confidence?

What’s so secret about an oil spill cleanup plan anyway?

On a related note, BOEMRE also just approved Shell’s latest exploration plan for the deepwater Gulf, which did contain details about a worst-case scenario spill, a containment plan, and a cleanup plan. We think the plan had some alarming shortcomings. You can read our concerns in the comments we submitted.