Gulf Monitoring Consortium Issues 6-Month Report

Back in April 2011, SkyTruth joined forces with SouthWings and Waterkeeper Alliance to coordinate our responses to oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.  Calling our partnership the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, we’ve worked by space, air and sea to investigate reports and rumors of pollution incidents.  Along the way we’ve identified spills not reported to Federal agencies, like this discharge from a platform along the Louisiana coast, and a leak from an offshore well in Breton Sound.  We’ve chronicled the continuous, ongoing leakage of oil from wells owned by Taylor Energy that were damaged by Hurricane Ivan more than seven years ago.  And we’ve looked into the continuing confusion surrounding the repeated sightings of oil near the Macondo well, source of the BP / Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010.

We’ve produced a brief report that summarizes the Consortium’s activity from April to October 2011, includes fact sheets on key investigations we’ve conducted, and discusses our findings so far, including:

  • Lack of reporting of oil spills by responsible parties
  • Underreporting by responsible parties
  • Inconsistencies in National Response Center (NRC) collection and publication of oil spill reports

We also estimate, based on our analysis of NRC reports, that as much as 2 million gallons of oil may have been spilled from October 2010 through September 2011 — nearly ten times more than reported by the polluters themselves.

Click here to read the report.

Gulf of Mexico Overflight Yesterday – Old Slicks, New Slicks

Jon Henderson of Gulf Restoration Network did an overflight over the Gulf yesterday, thanks to our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partner SouthWings. They documented two small slicks in Breton Sound, and a larger slicks from the Taylor Energy site where a cluster of hurricane-damaged wells have been leaking since 2004.  Read all about it and check out the excellent pics.

Jon filed three reports with the National Response Center, as all citizens who witness a suspected oil or hazardous materials spill are encouraged to do.  His reports should appear soon in the SkyTruth Alerts system, which you can subscribe to if you’d like to get automatic notifications any time a spill is reported. But in the meantime you can see Jon’s two Breton Sound reports here and here, and the Taylor report here.

Oil slick at Taylor Energy / 23051 chronic leak site in Gulf of Mexico, December 8, 2011. Photo courtesy Jon Henderson / Gulf Restoration Network.

Judging from the pics, it looks like both Breton Sound slicks are being caused by a slow point source of leakage underwater, probably on the seafloor.  The first is similar to what you’d see at a natural oil seep location; the second contains heavier brown material that suggests a larger/faster leak.  Given the maze of pipelines and abandoned wells on the seafloor in the Sound, both might be from leaking infrastructure.  We’ll check the NRC to see if any potential responsible party has come forward.

The slick at the Taylor Energy / 23051 site is similar to what we’ve been seeing since we first “discovered” this chronic leak in early 2010. A work boat of some kind is on the scene, but the Ocean Saratoga rig that was working to plug the leaking wells is obviously not. Apparently fixing these wells and stopping this leak isn’t a high priority. Check out a chronology of information and observations related to this leak. You can monitor this location on the SkyTruth Alerts, or subscribe to get automatic notifications.

Unreported Leak / Discharge from Oil Platform Off Louisiana Coast – May 7, 2011

Thought you all would like to (finally) see photos taken during the very first official action of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium back in May of this year. SouthWings pilot Dan Luke flew along the Gulf coast to investigate possible leaks from oil and gas infrastructure in western Louisiana, from Vermilion Bay to Sabine Pass.  About 37 miles east of Grand Chenier, passenger Jamie Ward took a series of photos showing an apparent discharge of oily material from a platform about a mile offshore:

Gulf Monitoring Consortium photo taken May 7, 2011 showing apparent discharge from an oil platform in state waters along the Louisiana coast.


We haven’t been able to find any report for this incident at the National Response Center.  It’s our understanding that any discharges or leaks that create a visible oily sheen on the water must be reported to the NRC by the responsible party.

This isn’t the only spill we’ve stumbled across where there was no report by the responsible party; later that summer, in another Gulf Monitoring Consortium investigation, Jon Henderson documented (photos and video) a long oil slick emanating from a wellhead in Breton Sound.

Why is this interesting? Well, it makes us wonder:  how many other leaks and spills are simply going unreported in the Gulf?  If 2 out of 5 Gulf Monitoring Consortium actions discovered unreported spills, it raises the possibility that this could be a very large problem.  Maybe the spills weren’t reported simply because no personnel from the responsible company were on site to notice a problem.  But that’s troubling because the vast majority of the 3,600 or so actively producing oil and gas platforms and other structures in the Gulf aren’t occupied.  What you can’t see, you can’t report.  Which means that we really don’t have any idea how much pollution is caused by day-to-day offshore oil and gas operations.

And that’s a real problem – not just for the Gulf and for restoring the natural resources that support the fishing, seafood and tourism industries – but for folks in other parts of the country, like Alaska and Virginia and North Carolina who are being asked to support the expansion of offshore drilling to their coasts.

Waterkeeper Alliance Takes Legal Action on Chronic Leak at 23051 Site in Gulf

One of our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, Waterkeeper Alliance, has filed a notice of intent to sue over the ongoing, chronic oil leak from the site of former platform 23051 in the Gulf of Mexico.  We discovered this leak last May while analyzing imagery of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  According to the operator, Taylor Energy, and the Coast Guard, the wells at that location were damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and, we presume, have been leaking 24/7 ever since. Repeated observations of the site on satellite images and via aerial overflights confirm that the leak is ongoing.

Occasionally we’ve observed a deepwater drill rig, the Ocean Saratoga, at the site, working to plug these leaking wells.  But it’s not there continuously which makes us wonder: is the rig being pulled away from time to time for more lucrative drilling and workover jobs that pay a higher day rate?  We don’t know.

We’ve compiled a chronology of what we know about this chronic leak site.  We’ll continue to add to it as we see more evidence of ongoing leakage, part of our daily monitoring of the Gulf. If you’d like to bird-dog this site yourself – or anyplace else in the US for that matter – check out our SkyTruth Alerts. Or just click one of the following:

Platform 23051 Site – Still Leaking, Magically!

Back on September 2 somebody submitted a pollution report to the National Response Center indicating an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and it popped up in the SkyTruth Alerts system.  That’s depressingly common – there are typically a dozen or so reports of spills every day in the Gulf.  And this one came from a familiar place, the site of a former oil platform (#23051) about 12 miles off the tip of the Mississippi Delta, in Mississippi Canyon Block 20.  We’ve been systematically documenting a chronic leak there since we first became aware of it last summer during the unrelated BP / Deepwater Horizon spill.

But the September 2 report is magical:  The caller – presumably an employee of or contractor for the company – claimed a spill totalling 0.0000027 gallons.  That’s 1/500th of a teaspoon.

  • Magic Act #1: How did they measure it?
  • Magic Act #2: This vanishingly minuscule spill somehow created an observable oil slick 1,000′ long and 200′ wide, covering a total area of 4.6 acres with a “silvery sheen.”

Silvery sheen is at least 0.04 to 0.3 microns thick.  By our calculation, that’s a slick containing 0.2 to 15 gallons.  Sure, 2/10ths of a gallon isn’t much, but it is 74,000 times larger than the caller reported. Maybe this was a simple transcription error at the NRC.  But if not, this one gets the prize for ridiculousness, reinforcing our evolving theory that polluters are consistently underreporting the amounts of pollution. Cumulatively, given thousands of reported spills a year, these unreported amounts add up to a much bigger mess than the public has been lead to believe.  In a place like the western and central Gulf, maybe this is no big deal; but in new places where we’re moving ahead with drilling – the Virginia coast, the Arctic Ocean – the routine leaks and spills associated with coastal industrialization and offshore drilling might not be so easily shrugged off by tourists, fishermen, and the environment.

And by the way, we’re seeing a lot more than 5 gallons in the ongoing spill – 24/7/365 since September 2004 – from this hurricane-damaged cluster of wells.  The MODIS /Aqua satellite image below, taken on September 10, shows a slick originating at the 23051 site that extends almost 35 miles. And the radar satellite image at bottom, taken on August 30, shows a slick at the site that stretches about 13 miles. We’ve collected dozens of images showing slicks at this site routinely stretching more than 10miles.

Detail from MODIS satellite image taken September 10, 2011 showing 35-mile-long slick emanating from 23051 site at left.
Radar satellite image taken August 30, 2011, showing 13-mile-long slick at 23051 site at upper left.

We suspect that some of the oil slicks and occurrences of tarballs and other oil on the Louisiana coast are probably coming from this location, not from the BP / Deepwater Horizon site 40 miles offshore.  To help eliminate this possible source of confusion, scientists from National Wildlife Federation are taking a boat out today — guided by SkyTruth’s maps, coordinates, and image analysis — to collect a sample of the oil slick at the 23051 site.  We hope to get that sample chemically “fingerprinted.”  As always, we’ll report the results right here.