Tropical Storm Karen Building in Gulf of Mexico

It’s been a relatively quiet hurricane season in the northern Gulf so far this year – knock on wood – but right now a tropical storm is gaining strength and moving north off the Yucatan Peninsula and into the central part of the Gulf. The current forecasts show Karen strengthening to Category 1 (the weakest level of hurricane) sometime late Friday night as the storm center reaches the offshore oil platforms and pipelines, and making landfall along the Gulf coast near Mobile, Alabama early Sunday morning.  But of course, this could change, so get the latest info from the National Hurricane Center

Here are two maps showing the latest forecasts for the track of the center of the storm and the “cone of uncertainty” for that track; and the probability of tropical storm-force winds over the next 5 days.  We’ve overlain the offshore oil and gas infrastructure: platforms are shown as orange dots, seafloor pipelines as thin orange lines: 

Forecast track (black line) for center of tropical storm Karen. Pale blue envelope shows cone of uncertainty for the centerline.  Offshore oil and gas platforms are orange dots; seafloor pipelines are thin orange lines.  Forecast data from NOAA/NWS/NHC.
Forecast showing probability of tropical storm-force winds occurring over the next 120 hours. Offshore oil and gas platforms are orange dots; seafloor pipelines are thin orange lines.  Forecast data from NOAA/NWS/NHC.

We’re hoping, as always, for minimal damage and no injuries as Karen makes her way through. And that we won’t see much pollution from storm damage to offshore and coastal oil and petrochemical facilities, as we did after Isaac, Ike, Katrina and Rita.  

Those were all much stronger storms than a Category 1 hurricane, so we’re hopeful Karen will leave no such damage in her wake.

Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities Still Not Storm Ready


On August 6, SkyTruth and four other environmental organizations comprising the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) announced their findings from a review of pollution reported from petrochemical and fossil fuel processing facilities during and immediately after Hurricane Isaac. Based self-reporting by “responsible parties” to state and federal authorities, GMC members found operators blamed the storm for at least the following pollution from their facilities:

341,044 gallons of oil, chemicals, and untreated waste-water

192.3 tons of gases and other materials (354,819 pounds)

12.6 million gallons of untreated “process area water” from one overwhelmed facility


After an additional review of pre-storm aerial surveys; post-storm monitoring efforts in the air, on the ground, and in the water; and analysis of satellite and aerial survey imagery, the Consortium concluded:

  • Substantial amounts of pollution were released into the environment due to damage from the only hurricane to make landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2012.
  • Harmful chemicals, including recognized neurotoxins and carcinogens, were released due to damage from the storm.
  • Despite advance warning of the storm path and intensity, operators used the weather as an excuse for polluting.
  • Fossil fuel infrastructure in the Gulf Region is vulnerable to predictable tropical weather events.
  • Oil from the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster continues to wash ashore. 

We believe this is a particularly important issues as pressure is building to expand offshore oil and gas development to new coastlines, including hurricane-prone regions of the Eastern Seaboard like Virginia and North Carolina. In evaluating the trade-offs between offshore development, tourism, and fishing, citizens of these areas should be aware of the constant drumbeat of pollution reports we observe during routine petrochemical extraction and processing operations, and the repeated incidence of serious pollution that occurs when strong storms hit the coast.

We routinely observe significant pollution in the wake of strong storms. The coastal facilities required to support offshore oil and gas drilling continue to show dismaying vulnerability to storm damage. We found this to be true after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike; we experienced it yet again with Hurricane Isaac; and we’re reminded of it on a daily basis as we monitor the ongoing oil leak from a Taylor Energy platform destroyed in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan.



About GMC: The Consortium is a rapid response alliance that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information acquired from space, from the air, and from the surface in order to investigate and expose pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Coast region.


GMC Member Organizations:

Below: Image highlights from GMC monitoring trips and Investigations – photos may be reproduced so long as credit is attributed to the individual or organizations named.


Judge Rules Waterkeeper Lawsuit Against Taylor Energy Can Proceed

So now maybe we’ll get some answers:  last week a judge threw out two motions filed by Taylor Energy to dismiss the lawsuit filed against them by Waterkeeper Alliance (one of the founding members of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium) for their chronic leak in the Gulf of Mexico that’s been spilling oil 24/7 from a cluster of wells damaged by Hurricane Ivan nearly 9 years ago.  Now this legal action can proceed.  

SkyTruth is not involved in the legal action, but we’ve been tracking this spill since we “discovered” it on satellite imagery during the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.  We’ve compiled a linked list of all the pollution reports for this incident that we could find at the Coast Guard’s National Response Center (mostly submitted as required by law by Taylor Energy or their contractors; some submitted by passers-by), all the direct observations and measurements of the slick on satellite images made by SkyTruth and recently by image analysts at NOAA, and observations from flyovers by Gulf Monitoring Consortium and On Wings of Care.  

We also attempted to estimate the cumulative amount of oil that has leaked into the Gulf since Hurricane Ivan.   

Now we have a powerful new tool to do offshore pollution monitoring, with the successful launch earlier this year of the Landsat-8 satellite.  These images, while not as frequently acquired, are much more detailed than the twice-daily MODIS satellite images we’ve been relying on.  

Here is what the Taylor slick looked like on a Landsat-8 image shot on June 18, 2013: 

Detail from Landsat-8 image showing 30-mile-long oil slick emanating from site of former Taylor Energy oil platform destroyed during Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, about 11 miles from tip of Mississippi Delta (green areas at upper left). Image taken on June 18, 2013. See below for measurement. Clouds and shadows at lower right and upper left.
Direct measurement of slick on June 8, 2013.

Our observation shows the slick was nearly 30 miles in length.  NOAA satellite experts agreed.  But on that same day — in fact, at 10am local time, almost exactly the moment the Landsat-8 satellite passed overhead and captured this image — Taylor Energy reported a slick that was 10 miles long.  Taylor does their observations by aerial overflight, so it’s possible their pilot just couldn’t follow the slick over the full 30 mile distance.  But this isn’t an unusual discrepancy:  we, working with researchers at Florida State University, have noted systematic under-reporting by Taylor, and by polluters in the Gulf in general.  

Polluters beware:  when the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite is launched, we’ll soon have radar imagery back in our monitoring toolkit.  That will open up a lot of new monitoring possibilities.  We’ll need a few more eyeballs looking at images around here to take advantage of these great new data sources, so if you’re interested in becoming a volunteer skytruther, or contributing to our work, please contact us! 

Oil Slick on Satellite Image Yesterday – Eugene Island Area, Gulf of Mexico

We’ve been using the new Landsat-8 satellite imagery to help monitor pollution events in the Gulf of Mexico.  With a spatial resolution of 25 meters, this imagery is much more detailed than the twice-daily MODIS imagery (250 meters) that we used throughout the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill.  But it takes a lot more Landsat images to cover the entire Gulf, and although we’re getting about 8-15 images of the Gulf region per day between Landsat-8 and Landsat-7, that’s not enough for complete daily coverage. 

But hey, it’s free.

A Landsat-8 image taken yesterday shows a small, unreported slick in the Eugene Island area about 26 kilometers (15 miles) from the Louisiana coast.  About 10 km (6 mi) across, the slick covers about 33 km2.  Using our rule of thumb that, to be visible, a slick must be at least 1 micron thick on average, that amounts to about 8,700 gallons of oil or some oily substance:

Detail from a Landsat-8 satellite image (inset) taken on July 18, 2013, showing a small apparent oil slick (orange outline) in the Eugene Island area off the Louisiana coast.  Oil and gas platforms shown as small red dots. 

There are five oil and gas platforms (red dots) within the area of the slick.  They all lie within lease blocks 44, 45 and 51.  As far as we can tell, no reports of a slick were filed with the National Response Center yesterday, even though this was probably visible to anyone on those platforms (these could all be unmanned — we haven’t checked). See our Alerts map for the NRC reports in this part of the Gulf. 

This doesn’t seem to be related to the incident we posted on Facebook yesterday, where a work boat came to port covered with drilling mud from a problem at an Apache drill rig in the Eugene Island Block 136.  That’s about 37 km (23 mi) south of this slick. 

By the way, here is the MODIS/Aqua satellite image for the same area as shown above, taken the same day at 2:15 pm local time.  Heavy clouds obscure the site.  This is another advantage of Landsat: it crosses overhead earlier in the day, at about 10:00 am local time.  In many places, clouds build up as the day wears on: 

Detail from a MODIS/Aqua satellite image (same area as shown above), taken about 4 hours later on July 18, 2013.  Slick outline (orange) shown for reference.

“Mystery” Slicks at BP / Deepwater Horizon Site: Mystery Solved?

You may recall that sporadically throughout 2011 and 2012, satellite images and several aerial overflights of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill site revealed thin, recurring oil slicks in the area.  No known natural seeps were in the vicinity.  One obvious possibility is that the slicks were caused by residual oil, trapped in the mass of wreckage and failed containment equipment lying on the seafloor, that was episodically escaping and floating up to the surface as the wreckage settled and shifted.  Another possibility was that the doomed Macondo well, or one of the two relief wells drilled during the disaster in 2010, had somehow sprung a leak, despite being filled with cement.  Inspections by ROVs, and videos they collected from the wellheads, failed to turn up evidence of any leaks.  

Slick photographed during overflight of BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill site on February 29, 2012 by Gulf Monitoring Consortium member Gulf Restoration Network. Photo courtesy Erika Blumenfeld.  See more.

A more ominous possibility was that oil had escaped laterally from the well during the blowout, had infiltrated bedrock next to the well, and was slowly making its way up to the seafloor through fractures in the bedrock — a situation similar to what happened off the coast of Brazil when a well Chevron was drilling suffered an underground blowout

Researchers funded by The National Science Foundation think they’ve solved the mystery.  Their chemical “fingerprinting” work suggests the oil slicks were indeed caused by residual oil escaping from the wreckage, based largely on the presence of olefins (human-made compounds found in drilling fluid, but not in crude oil) in both the slicks they sampled, and samples of oil taken from the wreckage.  This might not end the debate, because large amounts of drilling mud were pumped into the well — and spewed back out of it into the ocean and onto the seafloor — throughout the ugly summer of 2010 in multiple attempts to kill it.  But we think this is the most likely explanation: the lack of recent observations of slicks in the area, either by aerial overflight or on satellite images, gives us some confidence that there is no continual leak coming from the well(s) or the seafloor. 

Work Underway to Permanently Plug and Abandon Leaking Well in Ship Shoal Area, Gulf of Mexico

The leaking well on a production platform that generated a slick in the Ship Shoal area last week was temporarily killed with an injection of drilling mud on July 11, and will now be permanently plugged with cement.  This is something that probably should have been done years ago, since this well — drilled in the 1970s — hasn’t been in production since 1998.  This leak began while the new owners were working to permanently plug the well. They reported having problems with the casing, which suggests that the well pipe was deteriorating, probably from corrosion.  We’re hoping that BSEE is requiring Gulf oil and gas operators to systematically (and expeditiously) work to permanently plug the thousands of wells that have been lingering for years, zombie-like, in a state of suspended animation known as “temporary” abandonment. The Associated Press reported on this practice back in 2010 – it’s worth another look at their excellent investigation. 

Here’s what this relatively minor spill looked like from the air, thanks to Bonny Schumaker from On Wings of Care.  Supposedly this was a release of natural gas, natural gas condensate, and water, but there also appears to be some thick, oily mousse (the brownish-orange material) in the mix. Condensate (a light, toxic and volatile hydrocarbon liquid) typically does not generate mousse, so maybe there was also some crude oil leaking from the site:



A couple of interesting things happened during this spill in terms of federal response.  The Coast Guard claimed that there was no blowout in this incident.  Yet global oilfield services giant Schlumberger defines “blowout” as “An uncontrolled flow of reservoir fluids into the wellbore, and sometimes catastrophically to the surface. A blowout may consist of salt water, oil, gas or a mixture of these.” If this incident put natural gas into the air, and condensate and mousse into the water, it clearly meets the industry’s definition of blowout.  Fortunately this was a low-pressure well at the end of its productive life, so this blowout was not particularly spectacular — although it was dangerous enough to evacuate the platform. 

And the Federal Aviation Administration slapped a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over the site for a couple of days, prohibiting anyone from flying within three nautical miles of the platform at any altitude below 10,000 feet.  Talking to a knowledgeable pilot with our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners, SouthWings, we learned that the FAA actually doesn’t have this authority:  they only have jurisdiction to enact TFRs within 12 miles of the coast, and this incident was more than 40 miles offshore.

We’re glad this incident seems to be nearly resolved, with no injuries and relatively little environmental damage. But we’re concerned about the integrity of thousands of other abandoned wells in the Gulf, and by the actions and statements of federal authorities that — intentional or not — hinder effective communication with the public about what’s happening in our public waters. 

Coast Guard Responding to Leaking Gas Well 44 miles from Louisiana Coast

July 10, 2013: Leaking Ship Shoals Block 225 – Platform B photographed by Billy Dugger via an On Wings of Care flight with Pilot Bonny Schumaker. 
See more photos at – OnWingsOfCare.org
 
UPDATED: July 11, 2013 at 9:58 am with photo from On Wings of Care
 
July 10, 2013 – 3:40 pm: The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced Tuesday they are responding to a loss of well control at Platform B in Ship Shoal Block 225. On July 9, USCG reported a 4-mile by 3/4 mile rainbow sheen in the Gulf (covering an area of 1,920 acres based on reported dimensions) around an oil and natural gas platform 79 miles southwest of Port Fourchon, Louisiana and 44 miles from the nearest land. According to a statement by the well owners, the incident occurred at an older well that was being plugged and abandoned, and the other two producing wells on the platform have been shut-in. CNN reports the wellhead is located on the Gulf floor at a depth of 130 feet, and quoted Jonathan Henderson of Gulf Restoration Network (one of our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium) on the potential environmental impact of this leak.
“Toxic gases will damage the bodies of fish that come into contact by damaging their gills and causing internal damage … Marine species in the Gulf are more vulnerable when water temperatures are high and when oxygen concentrations are low like they are now.”
Energy Resource Technology (ERT) Gulf of Mexico LCC, the platform’s operators, first reported trouble with the well to the USCG’s National Response Center (NRC) on July 7th, disclosing that at 4:45 pm local time ”CRUDE OIL WAS RELEASED THROUGH HOLES IN THE HOSE” as they were cleaning out a well with “coil tubing.” The caller estimated the resulting a sheen was 750 feet wide by 1 mile long (90.9 acres). That same day the NRC received a call from the same area reporting a 1 mile by 4 mile ( 2,560 acres) oil slick from “AN UNSECURED WELL HEAD THAT HAS RELEASED THREE BARRELS OF OIL INTO THE WATER.”
The following day, on July 8th, ERT again reported that at 7:00 am they had spilled 4.2 gallons of crude oil “DUE TO EQUIPMENT FAILURE WHILE PLUGGING THE WELL.” The caller reporting the spill estimated the sheen was 450 feet wide by 0.3 miles long (16.36 acres).
At 6:45 am on July 9th, a passing aircraft reported a much larger sheen to the NRC – 200 feet wide by 5 miles long (121.2 acres).
As of July 9, the most recent reports from USCG state that platform personnel had been evacuated and federal agencies are monitoring well-control and pollution response activities. Gulf Monitoring Consortium member SkyTruth reports that cloud cover in the Gulf has impeded observation by satellite, but will continue to monitor reports and available satellite imagery.
To follow future reports to the NRC for this and other incidents anywhere in the United States, check out SkyTruth Alerts and subscribe to the places you care about:
http://alerts.skytruth.org/subscribe
This report will be updated as needed with new information and images.