Ten years ago SkyTruth Revealed the Truth about the BP Oil Spill

SkyTruth video highlights our work fighting oil pollution, then and now.

Ten years ago last week, BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 men and setting off the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. SkyTruth was there; not in person but remotely; using satellite imagery to track the spill from space. Working with oceanographer Ian MacDonald, we estimated that the amount of oil gushing from the broken wellhead was more than an order of magnitude larger than the estimates provided by BP and the U.S. Coast Guard. By making our independent analyses available to the public, we generated national and international media attention, and created pressure on the federal government to create its own scientific task force to determine the true size of the spill. Their conclusion, months later, was even larger than our estimates, and set the stage for the billions of dollars that BP eventually paid to help restore Gulf ecosystems and economies.

Watch our four-minute video to learn more about the disaster, and what SkyTruth is doing now to stop oil pollution at sea.

Thanks to Thad Reid for helping us with this production.

What About the Oceans? Mapping Offshore Infrastructure

Mapping stationary structures in the ocean helps us track fishing vessels and monitor pollution more effectively.

We’re all accustomed to seeing maps of the terrestrial spaces we occupy. We expect to see cities, roads and more well labeled, whether in an atlas on our coffee table or Google Maps on our smartphone. SkyTruthers even expect to access information about where coal mines are located or where forests are experiencing regrowth. We can now see incredibly detailed satellite imagery of our planet. Try looking for your house in Google Earth. Can you see your car in the driveway?

In comparison, our oceans are much more mysterious places. Over seventy percent of our planet is ocean, yet vast areas are described with only a handful of labels: the Pacific Ocean, Coral Sea, Strait of Hormuz, or Chukchi Sea for example. And while we do have imagery of our oceans, its resolution decreases drastically the farther out from shore you look. It can be easy to forget that humans have a permanent and substantial footprint across the waters of our planet. At SkyTruth, we’re working to change that.

Former SkyTruth senior intern Brian Wong and I are working to create a dataset of offshore infrastructure to help SkyTruth and others more effectively monitor our oceans. If we know where oil platforms, aquaculture facilities, wind farms and more are located, we can keep an eye on them more easily. As technological improvements fuel the growth of the ocean economy, allowing industry to extract resources far out at sea, this dataset will become increasingly valuable. It can help researchers examine the effects of humanity’s expanding presence in marine spaces, and allow activists, the media, and other watchdogs to hold industry accountable for activities taking place beyond the horizon.

What We’re Doing

Brian is now an employee at the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab (MGEL) at Duke University. But nearly two years ago, at a Global Fishing Watch research workshop in Oakland, he and I discussed the feasibility of creating an algorithm that could identify vessel locations using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery. It was something I’d been working on on-and-off for a few weeks, and the approach seemed fairly simple.

Image 1. SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch team members meet for a brainstorming session at the Global Fishing Watch Research Workshop, September 2017. Photo credit: David Kroodsma, Global Fishing Watch.

Readers who have been following SkyTruth’s work are probably used to seeing SAR images from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites in our posts. They are our go-to tools for monitoring marine pollution events, thanks to SAR’s ability to pierce clouds and provide high contrast between slicks and sea water. SAR imagery provides data about the relative roughness of surfaces. With radar imagery, the satellite sends pulses to the earth’s surface. Flat surfaces, like calm water (or oil slicks), reflect less of this data back to the satellite sensor than vessels or structures do, and appear dark. Vessels and infrastructure appear bright in SAR imagery because they experience a double-bounce effect. This means that — because such structures are three-dimensional — they typically reflect back to the satellite more than once as the radar pulse bounces off multiple surfaces. If you’re interested in reading more about how to interpret SAR imagery this tutorial is an excellent starting point.

Image 2. The long, dark line bisecting this image is a likely bilge dump from a vessel captured by Sentinel-1 on July 2, 2019. The bright point at its end is the suspected source. Read more here.

Image 3. The bright area located in the center of this Sentinel-1 image is Neft Daşları, a massive collection of offshore oil platforms and related infrastructure in the Caspian Sea.

Given the high contrast between water and the bright areas that correspond to land, vessels, and structures (see the vessel at the end of the slick in Image 2 and Neft Daşları in Image 3), we thought that if we could mask out the land, picking out the bright spots should be relatively straightforward. But in order to determine which points were vessels, we first needed to identify the location of all the world’s stationary offshore infrastructure, since it is virtually impossible to differentiate structures from vessels when looking at a single SAR image. Our simple task was turning out to be not so simple.

While the United States has publicly available data detailing the locations of offshore oil platforms (see Image 4), this is not the case for other countries around the world. Even when data is available, it is often hosted across multiple webpages, hidden behind paywalls, or provided in formats which are not broadly accessible or useable. To our knowledge, no one has ever published a comprehensive, global dataset of offshore infrastructure that is publicly available (or affordable).

Image 4. Two versions of a single Sentinel-1 image collected over the Gulf of Mexico, in which both oil platforms and vessels are visible. On the left, an unlabelled version which illustrates how similar infrastructure and vessels appear. On the right, oil platforms have been identified using the BOEM Platform dataset.

As we began to explore the potential of SAR imagery for automated vessel and infrastructure detection, we quickly realized that methods existed to create the data we desired. The Constant False Alarm Rate algorithm has been used to detect vessels in SAR imagery since at least 1988, but thanks to Google Earth Engine we are able to scale up the analysis and run it across every Sentinel-1 scene collected to date (something which simply would not have been possible even 10 years ago). To apply the algorithm to our dataset, we, among other things, had to mask out the land, and then set the threshold level of brightness that indicated the presence of a structure or vessel. Both structures and vessels will have high levels of reflectance. So we then had to separate the stationary structures from vessels. We did this by compiling a composite of all images for the year 2017. Infrastructure remains stationary throughout the year, while vessels move. This allowed us to clearly identify the infrastructure.

Image 5. An early version of our workflow for processing radar imagery to identify vessel locations. While the project shifted to focus on infrastructure detection first, many of the processing steps remained.

Where We Are Now

Our next step in creating the infrastructure dataset was testing the approach in areas where infrastructure locations were known. We tested the algorithm’s ability to detect oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, where the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) maintains a dataset. We also tested the algorithm’s ability to identify wind turbines. We used a wind farm boundary dataset provided by the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office to validate our dataset, as well as information about offshore wind farms in Chinese waters verified in media reports, with their latitude and longitude available on Wikipedia.

Image 6. Wind farms in the Irish Sea, west of Liverpool.

Our results in these test areas have been very promising, with an overall accuracy of 96.1%. The methodology and data have been published by the journal Remote Sensing of Environment. Moving beyond these areas, we are continuing to work with our colleagues at MGEL to develop a full global dataset. What started as a project to identify vessels for GFW has turned into an entirely different, yet complementary, project identifying offshore infrastructure around the world.

Image 7. This animated map shows the output of our offshore infrastructure detection algorithm results (red) compared to the publicly available BOEM Platform dataset (yellow).

In addition to helping our partners at Global Fishing Watch identify fishing vessels, mapping the world’s offshore infrastructure will help SkyTruth more effectively target our daily oil pollution monitoring work on areas throughout the ocean that are at high risk for pollution events from oil and gas drilling and shipping (such as bilge dumping). This is also the first step towards one of SkyTruth’s major multi-year goals: automating the detection of marine oil pollution, so we can create and publish a global map of offshore pollution events, updated on a routine basis.

Be sure to keep an eye out for more updates, as we will be publishing the full datasets once we complete the publication cycles.

What can we learn from the longest oil spill in US history?

[This is a guest post about the ongoing Taylor Energy oil spill from Dr. Ian MacDonald, oceanographer at Florida State University. Ian helped SkyTruth make independent estimates of the size of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 that dwarfed the estimates told to the public by BP.]

As recently as two days ago — March 13, 2019 — pollution experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were reporting a 14 square-mile oil slick that originated out in the Gulf of Mexico about 12 miles from the Birdfoot Delta’s farthest bit of land.  By now there are hundreds of satellite and aerial images telling the same, sorry story. The source is the wreck of MC20A, an oil platform owned by Taylor Energy Company that was destroyed by winds, waves, and mudslides spawned by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Last fall, the Coast Guard and other agencies federalized the response to an oil spill that has been going on for fourteen years and counting, disinviting the company from the latest effort to stem the flow by attaching a massive containment dome to what remains of the platform.  Although the company has long insisted that the spill is trivial–no more than 10 gallons per day–a growing chorus of scientists have disagreed, by orders of magnitude. My personal estimate is 96 barrels (4032 gallons) per day, and I tend toward the low end of the scientific opinions.

Why the Feds changed their mind, and how come it took so long, are questions I address in a report on the longest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.  I tell the story from my perspective as an oceanographer who studies natural and unnatural oil inputs to the ocean, and based on what is now over seven years of funded research on MC20A.  

Storms like Ivan seem to be growing more common.  The sediments lost from the drastic reduction of Louisiana wetlands have been deposited on the slope in huge mud lobes–some of which will inevitably slide toward the sprawling network of aging platforms and pipelines that surrounds the Delta.  The lessons we learn from MC20A, and the response by a unified command under the direction of the US Coast Guard, may be put to the test again, possibly much more severely than with MC20A.

Will we be ready?
Read my report to learn more.  

Taylor Energy Oil Spill: This Is How Change Happens

Recently a front-page article ran in The Washington Post, describing the ongoing, 14-year-long leak of crude oil from hurricane-damaged wells at the former location of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, operated by a company called Taylor Energy.  The article stated that — based on the latest scientific estimates of the leak rate — the Taylor spill was about to surpass BP’s disastrous 2010 blowout in the Gulf, becoming the world’s worst oil spill.  News outlets around the world pounced on this headline, shining a global spotlight on this egregious chronic leak. Within weeks the US Coast Guard announced they had finally ordered Taylor Energy to fix the leak or face a daily $40,000 fine.  The team at SkyTruth was thrilled when we heard the news: when Taylor finally fixes the leak, this will be a great result for the environment in the Gulf and will send a strong message to the offshore oil industry that we won’t let them walk away from their messes.  And, this is the vindication of eight years of persistent, dogged work by SkyTruth and our partners.

Taylor Energy - Washington Post

Source: The Washington Post, October 21, 2018

How did we achieve this significant victory for the environment and the people of the Gulf Coast?  We….  

  • Built partnerships.  We teamed up with Southwings and Waterkeeper Alliance to form the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.  Gulf-area citizens groups, notably the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Gulf Restoration Network soon joined, giving us the ability to monitor, investigate, and systematically document the Taylor spill from space, from small aircraft, and on the water.  Alerted by our work, researchers from Florida State University conducted their own independent sampling and measurements, bringing a higher level of scientific expertise to the growing public scrutiny of this continuous pollution event.  
  • Worked with journalists to help them understand the significance of this unchecked spill.  Our methodical, transparent, and conservative analysis helped us build a reputation as being a trustworthy source of credible information.  We developed long-running relationships with journalists, particularly Mike Kunzelman at The Associated Press.  Reporters reached out for our comments and expert insights whenever new information or developments in the Taylor saga came to light.  These relationships resulted in dozens of articles in major media markets over the years, helping to maintain public attention and interest, and a steady drumbeat of public criticism.

And finally, an hour-long interview with Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears resulted in an article that triggered Coast Guard action.  Now, of course, we will continue to monitor the Taylor Energy leak to ensure that effective action is taken.  And we’ll let the world know what we see.

This is what it takes, to make positive change happen for the environment.  We’d like to thank the foundations and individuals who have donated to SkyTruth, making it possible for us to dedicate the time and resources to sustaining this watchdog effort over so many years.  We couldn’t have done it without you.

Please help us keep it going.  Donate to SkyTruth today!

SkyTruth appears on Netflix!

Last week, SkyTruth made an appearance on Netflix when their show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj used our interactive map of oil spills reported in the Gulf of Mexico in the years following the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster.

To learn more about the ongoing 14-year Taylor Energy leak that was the focus of this episode, check out our chronology of spill reports and observations at the site, as well as our most recent estimate of the cumulative oil spill based on those reports.

This appearance follows a recent front page article in the Washington Post on the “oil spill you have never heard of” that also referenced reports and data generated by SkyTruth. These are two great examples of how the work we do helps raise awareness of incidents of oil pollution and other types of environmental degradation across the globe.