“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:
This report will be updated as needed with new information and images.

Responsible Modern Offshore Drilling. Except When It Isn’t.

Ah. So this must be the Responsible Modern Offshore Drilling we’ve all been hearing so much about.  In magazines. In the newspapers. On the radio. On TV. On social media. Pretty much everywhere you look.

Except in real life.

MODIS satellite imagery taken Tuesday (June 18, 2013) shows a slick 32 miles long emanating from the Taylor Energy site, which has been reliably oozing oil into the Gulf for more than 8 years now. Strangely, there appears to be no action from the responsible party, industry, state or federal authorities to bring this ongoing travesty to a close. It’s likely this chronic leak has been generating tarballs that have been coming ashore on the Louisiana coast for years, well before the catastrophic 2010 BP  / Deepwater Horizon spill.

Maybe the powers that be in Louisiana and in Congress have decided to look the other way and keep their mouths shut, while the oil and gas industry spends hundreds of million of dollars per year on advertising and lobbying to convince the American people that oil and gas production is squeaky-clean and risk-free. Maybe it’s time to spend those millions to clean up the real-life problems, instead of trying to convince us that they don’t exist, because the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and others are working hard to ensure this stuff can no longer be hidden from public view.

Why not start here?  Eventually the people of Virginia and North and South Carolina who are being wooed by the promises of offshore drilling jobs and cash might begin to pay attention to industry’s inaction and politician’s lack of concern here in the Gulf.  They just might have second thoughts about drilling when they imagine a Taylor-like scenario unfolding in their waters, and a steady stream of tarballs washing ashore for years in Virginia Beach, or Nag’s Head, or Myrtle Beach.

Or a slick like this right off their coast, day after day after day after…..

Detail from MODIS/Aqua satellite image taken June 18, 2013 showing 32-mile-long slick apparently emanating from site of chronic Taylor Energy oil leak. Clouds and their matching shadows are distinctly different in appearance from the shadow-free slick on the water.


Detail from image above, showing our measurement of the slick (80 square kilometers / 29 square miles).  Assuming an average thickness of 1 micron (1/1,000th of a millimeter) this slick holds 21,120 gallons of oil.


Chronic Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico Since 2004 – Still Spillin’

The 2013 hurricane season is now upon us, and it’s predicted to be a doozy this year.  Which got us to thinking…

Remember that strange, persistent little oil slick about 12 miles offshore that SkyTruth discovered on satellite imagery during the BP oil spill in 2010, that was NOT related to the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster?

Remember how SouthWings  flew photographer J. Henry Fair out there and came across a deepwater drill rig with a miles-long oil slick next to it?

Oil slick at the Taylor Energy chronic leak site in Gulf of Mexico, June 5, 2010.

When we published this, an interesting story emerged:  we had found a chronic, continuous oil spill in the Gulf emanating from oil wells that were serviced by a platform at this location.  “Platform 23051” as we called it (because that’s how it was identified by government data), no longer existed: it had been hit by a seafloor mudslide triggered by Hurricane Ivan waaaay back in September 2004.  That’s right, six years earlier.  And the damaged wells, now buried under the mud, were being slowly found, re-entered and plugged with cement by their owner — an LLC named Taylor Energy Company — using a leased drill rig called the Ocean Saratoga.

The rig disappeared for a while, then re-appeared in November 2010.  It was still on the scene in March 2011, when Greenpeace flew over the site and took some photos. But we had indications from AIS vessel-tracking data that the rig had departed by June 2011.  Periodic aerial overflights conducted by Gulf Monitoring Consortium and On Wings of Care, and radar satellite images acquired since June 2011, have shown no rig working to plug the wells since Ocean Saratoga’s departure. The May 2013 status report from Diamond Offshore shows  the rig is contracted to work elsewhere.  

One thing, however, has remained constant at the site: it’s still leaking oil and forming a persistent, miles-long slick that is routinely visible on satellite images. Occasionally it reaches out more than 20 miles from the source.

Taylor is required to report the size and location of their oil slick to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center on a daily basis.  We’ve compiled all of their reports, as well as our own observations from overflights and satellite imagery.  What we see on satellite images consistently contradicts Taylor’s own reports, suggesting they are systematically and significantly underreporting the size of the slick.  And our analysis shows that the total spill from the Taylor site may have exceeded 1 million gallons by February 2012. 

In 2013 the satellite experts at NOAA began to report their analyses of the Taylor slick to the NRC as well (the first report we noticed from NOAA came on April 7).  They, too, are reporting slicks significantly bigger than what Taylor is reporting.  The latest example:  on June 1 at 9:00am, Taylor reported a slick 200 feet wide and 6.5 miles long.  But NOAA reported a slick 1 mile wide and 20.2 miles long on a satellite image taken at 11:45am, less than three hours later.  NOAA’s slick is more than 80 times bigger than what Taylor reported.  And if we assume the slick is, on average, only 1/1000th of a millimeter (1 micron) thick, that amounts to at least 13,800 gallons of oil on the water.  Yet the federal government has publicly stated that the leaking wells cumulatively spill only about 14 gallons per day.

We assume NOAA analysts were looking at this MODIS/Terra satellite image taken at 11:45am local time on June 1.  We measure the observable slick to be 21.4 miles long, reaching a maximum width of just over 5,100 feet but tapering to less than 1,500 feet at each end. Still, significantly bigger than Taylor reported:

Detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image taken at 11:45am on June 1, 2013, showing slick (bright line) apparently emanating from site of chronic leak since 2004.


Measurement shows slick extends more than 21 miles from the source.

Something’s fishy here.  But no matter whose numbers you believe, one nagging question is begging to be answered:  When are these wells going to be permanently plugged?  As time goes by, it looks like the answer is “never — we’re going to let them leak until the reservoir effectively bleeds out.” How can this be acceptable to federal government regulators and the politicians of Louisiana

Those rushing to embrace drilling in the waters off Virginia, Alaska and elsewhere in the US might want to slow down and take a good hard look at this ongoing travesty in the Gulf.