Gas Blowout at Hercules Drill Rig, Gulf of Mexico

Around midday today a natural gas blowout occurred at a jackup drill rig, the Hercules 265, operating in shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana (South Timbalier Block 220).  All of the workers — more than 40 — were safely evacuated.  The rig was enveloped in a cloud of gas, so there is a high risk of fire or explosion until the well is killed.  A small sheen was reported around the platform – this is probably a thin slick of highly volatile natural-gas condensate.  At this time we have no reason to think there is potential for a significant oil spill from this incident.  But, coming hard on the heels of another blowout that happened in the Ship Shoal area last week, it’s yet another reminder that drilling is an inherently risky activity. 

Pilot Bonny Schumaker with On Wings of Care flew over the site today and took some amazing photos.  Here is one of them.  See many more on her blog

Hercules 265 jackup drill rig enveloped by cloud of gas from ongoing blowout. Photograph by Bonny Schumaker / On Wings of Care.

 

GMC Monitoring Flight – Mobile, Al to Gulfport, MS: Part I – Coal Export and Terminals

On March 24 staff from Gulf Monitoring Consortium members SkyTruth, SouthWings, and Gulf Restoration Network flew over the Alabama and Mississippi coastline investigating pollution and degradation related to energy development. Our flight originated from Mobile, arranged by SouthWings with local volunteer pilot Dr. David Mauritson generously donating his time, talents, and fuel to our monitoring efforts. 

First, we flew over the Port of Mobile which dominated the landscape immediately after takeoff from the Brookley Aeroplex. The port boasts the McDuffie Coal Terminal, one of the nation’s largest coal import-export terminals. In addition to several smaller facilities nearby, McDuffie can handle a staggering 30 million tons of coal in a year, but in the past year  they processed *just* 13.9 million tons – only 46% of capacity. These numbers are of interest because of the intensifying debate over coal export.  With cheap natural gas flooding the market from fracking plays like the Marcellus Shale, there is growing pressure to sell American coal overseas to foreign markets – particularly Asia and Europe

McDuffie Coal Terminal on the south end of the Port of Mobile, supplied by coal from from as far away as Wyoming – most of which is transported by rail. Photo: D. Manthos – SkyTruth, via SouthWings

Only  one vessel was loading coal at the time of our flight, the Panama-flagged Grand Diva. This operation was depositing a black plume of coal dust in the water.

Plume of coal dust in the water (NRC Report #1042025off the starboard bow of the Germany-bound Grand Diva. Photo: D. Manthos – SkyTruth,  via SouthWings

As an individual case, this may not result in a significant impact on the environment.  But a brief review of Google Earth’s historical imagery yields two previous events clearly showing coal in the water, and several other less-clear images that appear to show pollution, suggesting this is a common event that may result in significant cumulative impact.

Air pollution is another consideration. Chronic coaldust blowing off the stockpiles at a coal terminal are the basis of a Clean Water Act lawsuit in Seward, Alaska, and one of the main arguments throughout the Pacific Northwest against expanding coal export terminals to move more Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming to Asian markets.  This is only one step along the way from mine to market – coal trains derail far more often than you might think (in North Dakota, Michigan, and Nebraska, just this past month), loaded barges crash into bridges (just this week)terminals flood when severe storms come through, and ships even crash into the loading docks. Not counting carbon emissions from burning the coal, scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens along coal transport routes are worried that these cumulative impacts will harm public health, disrupt their daily lives, and negatively impact the ecological health of waterways along the path from mine to port. 

Bulk transport by barge is cheaper and more fuel efficient than even freight rail, but extreme weather events exaggerated by climate change threaten its reliability. Last year’s drought crippled transport on the Mississippi River at the end of 2012, and without significant rain  river operators could face another low water crisis in 2013.

More to come including a leaky settling pond, an oil slick off Gulfport, and severe erosion resulting from ill-conceived oil spill response practices on Dauphin Island. Be sure to check out the photos of the whole flight on Flickr.

 
 

Shell Oil Spill, Nigeria: FPSOs Coming to the US

Shell’s big oil spill off Nigeria yesterday reportedly occurred during the transfer of oil to a tanker in their Bonga offshore field.  Oil is produced in the Bonga Field using an FPSO – basically, a modified oil tanker anchored in place.  Oil collected from wells on the seafloor flows up through riser pipes connected to the FPSO.  Shuttle tankers take crude oil out of the FPSO’s storage tanks and carry it to coastal refineries. Here’s a schematic diagram showing the Bonga Field layout:

FPSO operation at Bonga Field off Nigeria. Image courtesy Offshore Technology.

In March 2011, federal regulators approved the first-time-ever use of FPSOs to develop an offshore field in the US Gulf of Mexico.  Petrobras got the nod for their Cascade-Chinook development in water 8,200′ deep, 160 miles off the Louisiana coast.  Their FPSO, a converted tanker called the BW Pioneer, holds 600,000 barrels of oil (25.2 million gallons). BOEMRE and Coast Guard divvied up oversight responsibility for this vessel / production facility with an MOU in 2009. This project got off to a very poor start when 8,500′ of riser pipe went crashing  to the Gulf seafloor back in early April.

Our main concern is that FPSOs are potentially sources of massive oil spills:  a serious blowout, fire or explosion, collision with another vessel, intentional attack, rogue wave or storm damage, or other incident could result in a near-instantaneous release of millions of gallons. And as we’ve said here before, despite the underwhelming oil cleanup results during last year’s BP / Deepwater Horizon spill, we’ve made no significant progress in our ability to handle big spills.

Taylor / 23051 Chronic Leak Site in Gulf: Oil Analyzed

Back on September 15, a team from National Wildlife Federation piled onto a small boat on the Louisiana coast.  Their destination: the chronic leak site about 12 miles offshore where a cluster of wells operated by Taylor Energy has been steadily spilling oil into the Gulf since 2004.  Check out this aerial video of the site, shot by On Wings of Care on December 9, 2011:

Their objective: to collect samples of the Taylor oil slick for analysis, to see if it’s chemically distinguishable from the oil that gushed from BP’s infamous Macondo well about 30 miles away.  We wanted to know if other samples of oil collected in this region of the Gulf, on beaches and barrier islands and from slicks observed offshore, could possibly be coming from the Taylor site since it’s a well-documented source of oil pollution. The NWF team — coached in advance by Dr. Ed Overton at Louisiana State University on proper collection and sampling technique — succeeded. Dr. Overton analyzed the Taylor oil samples and in mid-October told us “these were heavily weathered oil with slight differences in the fingerprint pattern from the Macondo oil.”  (more after the jump….)


Elaborating on this a few days later, Dr. Overton said “the biomarker fingerprint is very similar but it does have significant differences especially in the 218 and 231 ion plots.  Also, the C2DBT/C2Ph and C3DBT/C3Ph ratios are not consistent with Macondo oil.  The sample we got from Ben Raines [of a small slick one mile from the Macondo well location] was very fresh with almost no weathering while the Taylor samples were all pretty heavily weathered with almost no normal hydrocarbons left in the GC data.  So, if you know what you are doing, you should be able to distinguish between Taylor sheens and other samples especially of the Macondo oils.  We really need samples of nearby seep oils and sheens from these seeps to get a full picture but so far, we have been able to fingerprint the Macondo oil fairly accurately (at least in my opinion).”

Here is a graphic Dr. Overton provided us yesterday, illustrating the difference in “weathering” of the Taylor oil samples from NWF compared with fresh Macondo oil samples taken directly from the riser pipe that connected the Macondo well with the Deepwater Horizon platform.  Dr. Overton said “While the data shown in the plots are not from the fingerprinting, these plots clearly show how much the Taylor samples were weathered compared to the Macondo Riser oil.  Getting good samples of all the slicks is a very daunting task because it requires close collaboration between surface sampling vessels and airborne observation. None the less, we still do not have good samples from sheens in the vicinity of the Macondo well.”

Data illustrating difference in weathering between oil samples taken from slicks at the Taylor/23051 chronic leak site, and from the riser pipe containing fresh crude from the Macondo well.  Graphic courtesy Dr. Ed Overton, Louisiana State University.
The upshot:  oil leaking from the Taylor site should not easily be confused with relatively unweathered oil from the Macondo disaster.  But it would be very helpful to collect more and better samples from the slicks being observed in the vicinity of the Macondo well site.
Eventually, as residual Macondo oil gets older and more highly weathered it will become more difficult to differentiate it from Taylor oil.

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.

Fire Reported in Gulf of Mexico – Part Deux?

Location of fires in the Gulf recently reported to the National Response Center in the general vicinity of the Na Kika deepwater development project operated by BP and Shell. Platforms are orange dots; seafloor pipelines are orange lines. Location of Deepwater Horizon wreckage shown for reference.

Once again an airline pilot (or observant passenger) has reported seeing a fire in the Gulf of Mexico.  This was reported to the National Response Center at about 8:19 pm on November 6, at a location in the deepwater Gulf about 12 miles southeast of the site of last year’s BP oil spill.  It’s also about 11 miles north of a fire reported on September 26 that we covered in this blog.

Both reports are in the general vicinity of the Na Kika offshore development project operated by BP and Shell.

We think these observers may be seeing flaring of natural gas during drilling operations.  We’re not sure what, if any, drilling activity is occurring here right now (if you know, please let us know!). If they are flaring “commercial quantities” of natural gas, that could be illegal – Shell got busted for doing this a few years back in the Gulf at their deepwater Auger platform about 140 miles offshore, and got fined to the tune of $49 million by the US government.

We don’t know if that’s what is happening here.  But we wonder if anyone at BOEMRE is paying attention to this.

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.