Marsh Fire Near New Orleans – Smoke Plume Over City

A quick update – yesterday’s MODIS satellite image shows the plume of smoke from a burning marsh blowing to the south-southwest, affecting a big chunk of the city of New Orleans and parts of the Jefferson, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes:

Detail from MODIS satellite image taken August 28, 2011 showing smoke from burning marsh drifting over eastern and southern new Orleans.

Thick smoke was drifting yesterday over the communities of Chalmette, Braithwaite, Marrero, Galliano, Chauvin, Dulan and Theriot, then heading out over the Gulf, making a visible plume that extended nearly 300 miles from the source of the fire – much longer than the smoke plume we observed while the Deepwater Horizon rig was burning last April.

BP Reports Leaking Abandoned Well in Gulf of Mexico

BP is reporting that they’ve observed “sheen” at the surface in the central Gulf of Mexico near two abandoned exploration wells; on August 14 someone reported to the NRC that fluid was observed leaking from one of these wells on the seafloor from an ROV (remotely operated vehicle, i.e. unmanned submarine). This is in Green Canyon Block 363, about 170 miles southwest of the site of the unrelated BP / Deepwater Horizon spill last summer:

Map showing recent report of leaking abandoned well in Green Canyon area of central Gulf of Mexico (click to enlarge). Site of BP’s oil spill last summer, and an ongoing chronic leak from cluster of wellsdamaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 (23051 site) are shown for reference.

Yesterday’s MODIS satellite imagery is partly cloudy in the area and not useful.  We’re trying to get a look at some European Space Agency radar satellite imagery (because the US doesn’t have any civilian radar satellites!) and will let you know what we find.  Data from our oceanographer friends at Florida State University show a possible natural oil seep just 2 miles from the reported well site, so the surface sheen here might be natural.

But if it’s true that an abandoned well is leaking, some things to think about:

  • This well is probably no more than 5 years old (drilled in 2007).
  • An AP investigation last year revealed there are already more than 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf, many of them much older than that.
  • These abandoned wells in the Gulf are never inspected to ensure they were properly plugged.
  • A significant percentage of abandoned wells onshore are not properly plugged, or develop problems that require “re-plugging,” often at taxpayer expense.

By the way, these wells are in the “Bushwood” prospect, in deep water about 100 miles offshore.  Yes, that’s right you Caddyshack fans – it was named after the infamous country club in that Bill Murray classic.  Maybe the gopher ate through their cement plug?

Shell Reports Drilling Mud Spill in Gulf of Mexico

Shell International reported an accidental spill of nearly 5,000 gallons of drilling mud into the Gulf of Mexico on July 31.  This is way out there in a cluster of deepwater fields known as the Perdido project, in water more than 7,800′ deep about 150 miles off the Texas coast (195 workers were evacuated from the project last week when tropical storm Don rumbled through):

Map showing location of drilling mud spill reported by Shell on July 31, 2011

Perdido is an awesome development project. Production from several separate fields in the region will be tied into a single, massive floating spar. Be sure to check out the jaw-dropping promotional video.

Schematic diagram of Perdido spar and subsea tie-ins with wells in surrounding fields.

And yes, “perdido” is indeed Spanish for “lost.”  AtlantisMacondo? Maybe it’s not wise to tempt fate…

Keep up with all the latest pollution incidents at the SkyTruth Alerts page.

BP Spill Stopped One Year Ago Today – 5,000 Spills Since Then

July 15, 2010 was a day of relief for many – even for folks up here in West Virginia – after 2-1/2 months watching helplessly as oil and gas billowed relentlessly into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s runaway Macondo well. On that day one year ago, the final valve was carefully closed on an improvised “capping stack” that did the job after a string of heartbreaking failures. By that time an estimated 172 million gallons of oil had spewed directly into the Gulf, vastly exceeding the Exxon Valdez tanker spill of 1989 — making it the nation’s worst oil spill, and the world’s worst accidental spill.

Photo from “spill cam” showing oil flow shut off at last on July 15, 2010

After cumulatively covering an area the size of Oklahoma, the massive oil slicks on the Gulf’s surface began to dissipate almost immediately under the steady assault of evaporation, wind and wave action, biodegradation, photolysis, and cleanup efforts. We last observed significant oil slicks on satellite images taken July 28. But unknown amounts of oil and chemical dispersant lingered beneath the ocean’s surface, out of sight, with an uncertain fate and as-yet untallied environmental consequences.  What is clear is that this spill caused significant economic damage to the Gulf seafood and tourism industries, upsetting the lives and livelihoods of people as far away as Virginia. And oil from the spill continues to wash ashore along the Gulf coast.

Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass any new laws governing offshore drilling safety.  In fact, they are going backwards by reducing funding for government inspections and oversight — despite the fact that the oil industry itself requested more funding for BOEMRE, the agency that manages offshore drilling.

Other frustrations?  The lack of progress in creating a national oil spill cleanup capability that has a fighting chance against the next major spill; the continued reliance on chemical dispersants as an effective cleanup tool, despite evidence suggesting they may do more harm than good; our serendipitous discovery of a chronic, 7-years-and-counting leak that is continually polluting the Gulf; the regular occurrence of “mystery spills” that never get resolved; the laughable results of a system that naively hopes polluters will accurately report their spills; the lack of consistent fines for polluters, a moral hazard that encourages sloppy operations and risk taking, all but ensuring another major disaster.

Oh yeah, and the 5,100 new oil and other hazardous materials spills in the Gulf region reported to the National Response Center since July 15, 2010.  Here are the 3,000 reports that have enough usable location information for us to pinpoint them on a map:

NRC oil and hazardous materials spill reports, July 15, 2010 – July 15, 2011

The inevitable conclusion?  Concerned individuals and citizen’s groups, like our Gulf Monitoring Consortium, have to take it upon themselves to investigate, understand, and publicize what’s really going on with pollution and offshore drilling. You can help us by submitting your observations and photos to our Gulf Oil Spill Tracker site. And next week we’ll unveil the SkyTruth Alerts system, a continually updated interactive map of reported pollution incidents nationwide, onshore and off.

Ongoing Leak at Platform 23051 Site – Anybody Home?

A quick update on the chronic leak we’ve been following at the former site of an oil platform reportedly destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.  RigData reports that the semisubmersible drilling rig that has been intermittently working to plug the leaking wells at this site, the Ocean Saratoga, has been towed away to work on a short-term drilling job elsewhere:

Ocean Saratoga has moved to Green Canyon Block 50 for a short-term well with Nexen Petroleum U.S.A., Inc. on a sublet from Taylor Energy Company, LLC. The work will last for around 20 days, which will conclude Taylor’s contract time on the rig. Upon completion of the work, the rig will go into shore for its five-year survey, which will take 45 days.

So the question is: who is working to plug the continuing leaks at this site?  The most recent overflight on July 1 shows an oil slick but no rig at the site, indicating that the work is not finished:

Photo of oil slick at Platform 23051 location, taken on July 1, 2011 by Bonny Schumaker / Wings of Care

That raises another question: is anyone being fined for this years-long, continual pollution of the Gulf of Mexico? Federal authorities claim the wells are leaking at an average rate of about 14 gallons per day (although satellite evidence suggests a much greater leak rate).  Hurricane Ivan made landfall on September 16, 2004, so it’s been at least 2,496 days that this leak has existed.  At 14 gallons per day that’s 35,000 gallons (832 barrels) of oil into the Gulf; if the basic $1,100 per barrel fine was assessed under the Clean Water Act, Taylor Energy would now be liable for a fine of almost $1 million.  But if they’re not facing any fines, there’s no incentive for them to expedite the plugging operation and stop this leak – especially if they can sublet the rig out to another company for what we suspect is a lucrative drilling job.

A recent study concluded less than 1% of the spills into Gulf waters off Louisiana resulted in any fine, and the fines that are assessed are ridiculously small compared to the profits realized from offshore oil and gas production.  Why is weak and inconsistent enforcement such a big deal? Because it sets up what economists like to call a “moral hazard,” encouraging companies to engage in risky behavior that they otherwise might think twice about.

And that burgeoning culture of sloppiness, if left unchecked by consistent and vigorous monitoring and enforcement, will inevitably lead to the next catastrophic oil spill.