What’s Going On at the BP / Deepwater Horizon Spill Site?

We’ve been closely following recent developments at the site of BP’s disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  There’s been a nagging stream of sightings of small oil slicks in the vicinity since August 2011, more than a year after the failed Macondo well was killed and plugged.  We documented these “mystery slicks” on radar satellite images taken on August 30, 2011 and possibly again on September 11, 2011. Aerial overflights by On Wings of Care captured photos and video confirming the presence of these thin oil slicks. As we stated in our blog at that time,

Some have suggested that crude oil from the reservoir 8,000′ below the seafloor might be working its way up through faults and fractures in the bedrock, or along the Macondo wellbore.  If that happens we would expect to see “seepage on steroids” as oil works its way to the seafloor along multiple pathways and floats up to the ocean surface to form persistent oil slicks.

Rainbow oil sheen in vicinity of BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill site, photographed by Bonny Schumaker during low-level overflight on October 5, 2012. Photo courtesy On Wings of Care.

At the time this seemed highly unlikely to me.  Yet, just a few months later, Chevron lost control of a deepwater exploration well off the coast of Brazil and something remarkably similar to this scenario unfolded. Now we think it is possible that the recurring small slicks near the Macondo site might be caused by oil that leaked out of the well into surrounding bedrock during the months-long blowout, before the well was killed and cemented from top to bottom.  Some oil could have escaped either via cracks and holes scoured into the severely stressed well casing, or through the pressure-relief “burst disks” that were an intentional, and controversial, part of the Macondo well design (for more details read Joel Achenbach’s excellent book, ‘A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea‘).  If this scenario actually did happen, the residual oil is gradually migrating to the seafloor through existing natural fractures and faults in the bedrock, as it did in the Chevron incident off Brazil; and is seeping out of the seafloor into the water, floating up to the surface as droplets of oil and possibly oil-coated bubbles of natural gas; and forming thin slicks, behaving very much like the many natural oil seeps scattered throughout the Gulf.  Eventually this residual oil will work through the system and this artificially induced “seepage” will decline, as it did in the Brazil example (Chevron has also placed structures on the seafloor to capture the oil leaks off Brazil).

But is this actually happening at the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill site?

A series of recent slick sightings, again documented by pilot Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care beginning on September 14, raise the possibility. There are known natural oil seeps in the general vicinity that were identified and mapped by scientists at Florida State University long before the BP spill in 2010, but the closest of these is about  2.9 miles southeast, 3.1 miles south, and 4.9 miles northeast of the plugged Macondo well. BP suggested the slicks were caused by residual oil leaking from the wreckage on the seafloor: the massive Deepwater Horizon rig, the 5,000 feet of tangled riser pipe, the failed and discarded containment devices and other pieces of equipment. In October, BP plugged the cofferdam / containment dome device that had been used in the first failed attempt to stop the Macondo spill, claiming that leftover oil leaking out of this device had been the source of the recent oil slicks. But additional slicks sighted in the area on November 2 and November 9 caused the Coast Guard to order BP to deploy more ROVs to once again investigate the site and try to identify the source of oil for the mystery slicks. BP did so in mid-December, and the Coast Guard released four low-resolution videos of that inspection operation.  The videos were apparently shot on December 11-14, 2012.  We haven’t watched them all but BP and the Coast Guard claim they discovered no signs of leakage from the Macondo well or the two relief wells, or from any of the wreckage.  But this doesn’t address the question of possible leakage from the seafloor in the vicinity, the scenario that Chevron caused off Brazil.

The only way to answer that question is to conduct a systematic survey of the seafloor itself, not just the wellheads and wreckage.  Frankly, I think in all likelihood BP has already done this, so it should be a relatively simple matter of asking them to publish a report on the results, all of the video and other data they collected, and a map showing the survey grid they executed. If a thorough seafloor survey hasn’t been done yet, then it’s time for the Coast Guard to insist, to solve this mystery in a publicly transparent way that eases everyone’s fears. 

Report Oil Spills to NRC and Gulf Oil Spill Tracker

There’s some serious speculation that old oil from the 2010 BP / Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf could get churned up from the seafloor, and exposed by erosion of beaches and marshes, as a result of Hurricane Isaac’s wind and wave action. And as we’ve seen in past storms, new leaks and spills can occur from storm-pummeled platforms, pipelines, storage tanks and other facilities.

If you do see what you think could be a leak or spill of oil or hazardous materials, please report it to the National Response Center.  This is the nation’s official front-line agency for collecting and distributing information about pollution incidents. You can report via their website or by calling their toll-free hotline, 1-800-424-8802.  If your report to the NRC includes a good description of the location of your sighting (we love latitude/longitude coordinates, but the nearest street address is also useful) then we’ll be able to grab it from the NRC and put it on our SkyTruth Alerts map, so everyone can see your report. 

If you think you’ve observed oil pollution, you can also submit a report on the Gulf Oil Spill Tracker site for all to see. Including some photos with your Spill Tracker report is a great way to document possible new spills or the re-deposition of old BP oil, and helps validate your report. 

But above all, be safe.  Please don’t go out chasing oil spills in hazardous conditions.  Plenty of time for that after Isaac has moved on and the danger has passed. 

BP Oil Spill 2 Years Later: For Dauphin Island, Cure Worse Than Disease?

There’s been plenty of ink the past couple of weeks about the lingering impacts of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Two years ago here at SkyTruth we were just beginning to raise the alarm that the spill was actually much larger than we were being told by BP and government officials, and that the nation’s previous worst oil spill — the Exxon Valdez disaster — had already been surpassed.  Months of agony and economic loss followed for folks in the Gulf region and beyond. Recovery has come in fits and starts, with mixed news for offshore drilling and tourism (generally up), and for fishing and the environment (generally down).

We recently learned about another long-term casualty of the oil spill: Dauphin Island, Alabama, a beautiful stretch of barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay. In this case most of the damage was done not by the oil spill itself, but by a panicky and ill-conceived response effort during the spill (“we had to destroy this village, in order to save it“).  Large quantities of sand were excavated from a series of pits on the Mississippi Sound side of the island to build a berm along the Gulf side, a move designed to keep oil from washing up over the beach in case of a storm:

Sand berm being piled up along Gulf side of Dauphin Island during 2010 BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo courtesy The Washington Post.

The berm was never needed. Possibly it would have helped if a hurricane came along during the spill, but it’s not clear such a flimsy barrier would survive long under those conditions.  What has become apparent is how rapidly and dramatically this action is altering Dauphin Island.  22 pits were dug into the Sound side of the island to excavate the necessary sand. These pits quickly became ponds of standing water. The ponds are steadily eroding and growing to the point where some are now open to the sea, and subject to further erosion by waves and tide. Satellite imagery and aerial survey clearly show how this has progressed, threatening properties on this developed part of the island:

West end of Dauphin Island in May 2010.  Excavation of sand to build a berm along south (Gulf) side of island is underway; sand is being removed from pits on the north (Sound) side. One pit has already filled with water (dark rectilinear shape at right center).
Same area in January 2012. Sand-excavation pits are now ponds filed with water; some have eroded to the point that they are open to the Sound.  One coastal engineering scientist thinks the eroding sand-excavation ponds are now a weak spot in Dauphin Island that could become the next breach when a major storm hits.

This area full of houses now looks strikingly similar to how an undeveloped stretch of the island a few miles to the west appeared before it was breached by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Called the Katrina Cut, the mile-long breach had grown to nearly 1.4 miles wide by June 2010, when the Army Corps of Engineers began piling up a barrier of rock and sand to close off the gap and block BP’s spilled oil from entering the Sound.  This barrier ended up costing $17 million, and didn’t fully close the Cut until January 2011 — four months after BP’s runaway Macondo well had been plugged, and just five months before the whole danged thing was supposed to be removed, according to the original construction permit.  The State of Alabama is asking for permission to keep the structure in place, although one scientist thinks that’s not a good idea.

What’s more, the sand berm was apparently piled on top of water and sewer lines servicing the island, causing potential problems and additional expense for future maintenance work.  In this case, it looks like the actions taken to minimize damage from the oil spill might actually cause worse impacts down the road.  Will we be making the same dubious decisions when the next major oil spill comes around?

View a slideshow of our time-series images of Dauphin Island, or check them out one at a time in our Flickr image gallery.

Why BP Should Go On Trial For Gulf Oil Spill

The federal trial to determine accountability and penalties for the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil and gas disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was set to begin in New Orleans this morning, but has been delayed by one week to allow more time for BP, the feds, and other stakeholders to reach a settlement.

Deepwater Horizon rig sinking on April 22, 2010.

We appreciate that the many businesses and families harmed by this massive industrial accident may want to receive compensation sooner rather than later. A trial and the inevitable appeals would likely stretch on for years, with the outcome uncertain.

On the other hand, a quick settlement is the best outcome for BP, because they may avoid having to pay the higher $4,300-per-barrel-spilled fine for “gross negligence,” and would only face the much lower automatic fine of $1,100 per barrel.  Given a total spill of 172 million gallons (4.1 million barrels), that’s a very big difference: $4.5 billion instead of $17.6 billion.  Even a company as large as BP, which earned profits of $23.9 billion in 2011, would feel some pain from the gross negligence fine.  And unless they feel real pain, the offshore drilling industry is likely to continue doing business as usual, making another massive deepwater spill a near certainty.

More important than meting out sufficient punishment: there is bipartisan legislation in play called the RESTORE Act that would specifically allocate 80% of the fine to the Gulf states affected by the spill, rather than the general treasury. We assume (optimistically) much of the money would be used by those states to fund social, economic and ecosystem revitalization projects.  If the Act does get passed by Congress, the additional $13.1 billion yielded by a determination of gross negligence could make a huge difference to Gulf communities.

Most interesting to us: if settlement talks fail and this case goes to trial, we expect federal prosecutors will attempt to paint BP as a “rogue” operator that took unusual risks, to convince the judge that the spill resulted from gross negligence.  BP, to defend itself, will likely claim that their operations, well design, and decisionmaking were not so unusual, and were consistent with industry-wide practices.  To make that case BP will have to present lots of information about the offshore drilling industry as a whole, including the safety record, accidents and near-misses experienced by other companies that we never hear about.  None of the official investigations of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill looked at the industrywide record, leaving many of us wondering:

Just how risky is modern offshore drilling?

A trial may be the only way to answer that question, so we can make better-informed decisions that minimize the likelihood and impact of the next big spill as industry moves steadily forward with deepwater drilling.

Friday Night Appearances!

If you’re in the Shepherdstown, WV area this Friday evening November 4, come on out to the Shepherdstown Opera House for a screening of the film The Big Fix, ‘a comprehensive investigation into the massive BP Deepwater/Horizon spill in the Gulf which digs deeper to reveal a darker more unsettling truth about the world we live in today. By exposing the root causes of the spill, filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell uncover a vast network of corruption that not only caused one of the greatest environmental catastrophes of all time but may also lead to something that could be even more damaging to life as we know it; an inevitable global currency collapse.’

The film will be followed by a panel discussion with none other than our own SkyTruth president, John Amos, as well as Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation and Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post.  Joel is also author of a riveting book about the spill, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea.

As if that wasn’t exciting enough, if you DO come out to the Opera House, don’t forget to set your DVR’s and Tivo’s for the SkyTruth interview with West Virginia’s PBS. Our segment will be shown on Friday night’s episode of This Week In West Virginia, which will be airing at 8:00 p.m. If you miss that airing, don’t fret! Another airing will be shown on Sunday, November 6 at 6:00 p.m.