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.

New Milestones for Fisheries Transparency in Indonesia and Peru

Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth team members at the Our Oceans conference in Bali, Indonesia.

Until recently public tracking of fishing activity has been almost entirely dependent on AIS (Automatic Identification System) data, an open system for vessel tracking and collision avoidance. It’s exciting to see this changing with the success of Global Fishing Watch’s Transparency Program. This program began when Indonesia’s fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti took the unprecedented step of sharing the country’s Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) tracking data publicly on Global Fishing Watch. VMS had traditionally been a closed monitoring system accessed only by government authorities. Public VMS made thousands of smaller Indonesian fishing vessels trackable in an region with little AIS coverage and established a new policy of total transparency to reinforce Minister Susi’s overhaul of a fisheries sector previously plagued by illegal fishing and labor abuses.

The Our Oceans conference last week in Bali, Indonesia was a chance to showcase the great work of our Indonesian team, recently including analysis of VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) nighttime satellite imagery for detecting possible illegal activity in Indonesian waters and developing a process for validation of fishing effort predicted from VMS tracks along with Indonesian researchers. It’s also exciting to see that Indonesia has started a trend in choosing transparency in fisheries monitoring. Peruvian VMS tracking data now appears on the Global Fishing Watch map dramatically increasing our coverage of fishing in the eastern Pacific.

Wildan Ghiffary and Imam Prakoso of the SkyTruth Global Fishing Watch team at the Our Oceans Conference.

Here in Lima it has been great to see the Peru program take shape beginning with the commitment last year to publicly share VMS with Global Fishing Watch. Since then we have held workshops and training sessions with Peru’s Marine Research Institute and vessel monitoring authorities. I also recently had a chance to attend Peru’s biannual marine sciences conference (CONCIMAR) where along with Oceana Peru we put on a workshop for Peruvian students and announced the release of Peruvian data on the Global Fishing Watch map.

Peruvian students attending a workshop on Global Fishing Watch organized by Oceana Peru at Peru’s biannual marine sciences conference (CONCIMAR) held at Universidad Nacional José Faustino Sánchez Carrión in Huacho, Peru.

Both here in Peru and in Indonesia we are excited to see the beginning of a new era of transparency in monitoring and managing fishing resources. New tools and data sources developed by Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth are being made available to local students, researchers, and government regulators. We are particularly pleased to see so much local interest from the countries that have chosen to share their tracking data publicly. And this is just the beginning. Global Fishing Watch has big plans for supporting fisheries transparency in the future as we aim to work with 20 countries in making their fishing fleets publicly trackable in the next five years.

Discussion of the Global Fishing Watch platform with fisheries science students in Peru.

Tracking the Chinese Squid Fleet in the South Pacific – Part 1: Voyage to the Galapagos

When monitoring vessel activity on the vast scale of the world’s oceans at SkyTruth we know we’re almost always dealing with incomplete information. For example, only some vessels transmit their locations at sea via the Automatic Identification System (AIS), while others may only come up in a particular government’s private Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) or we may just see them as blips on a radar screen. So I was excited to hear that I was invited to accompany a vessel actually going out to investigate one of the fleets we have been monitoring with AIS and night imagery. The ship I would board is the M/V Brigitte Bardot, a 35 meter former racing vessel now run by Sea Shepherd, an international non-profit dedicated to taking direct action for marine conservation. In 2016 Sea Shepherd was able to track down some unusual vessel activity that we spotted in the Indian Ocean with spectacular results.  This time we would be tracking a much larger fleet fishing for squid in international waters 700 miles west of the Galapagos.

The Brigitte Bardot passes Sleeping Lion Rock upon arriving at San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. Video by Jack Hutton/ Sea Shepherd

Squid doesn’t come to mind when you consider the targets of the world’s largest fishing fleets. However, over the past few years the magnitude and global scale of squid fishing fleets have become apparent. Due to powerful fishing lights used to attract squid to the surface these fleets appear on NASA’s night imagery like cities floating hundreds of miles offshore. Recent analysis of vessel movements shows that they are interconnected with hundreds of predominantly Chinese flagged vessels moving between fleets along the Peruvian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundary, the South Atlantic, the northwest Pacific, and even the northern Arabian Sea.

We’ve been monitoring the squid fleet fishing at the Peruvian EEZ boundary for some time. We noticed a handful of vessels in the fleet broadcasting false AIS locations. Then in 2017, we were puzzled when the entire fleet suddenly picked up and relocated 3,000 miles to the northwest of the EEZ boundary, to a remote area west of the Galapagos. So as I boarded Sea Shepherd’s Brigitte Bardot, I was really curious to find out the real size of the fleet and why so many vessels appeared concentrated at this remote location.

Vessel detections with VIIRS night imagery (left) and AIS fishing effort (right) for the week of the Brigitte Bardot’s trip to investigate the squid fleet. Use the slider at the center of the image to switch between VIIRS and AIS detected vessel activity in the area. Full screen image here. Global Fishing Watch

On September 12th, we set off from Panama City with some of us suffering from the rough seas as we steamed southwest towards the Galapagos. I was able to meet the very enthusiastic crew on the Brigitte Bardot, including a professional photographer, a drone pilot, and a fantastic vegan cook. We were also fortunate to be accompanied by Eloy Aroni, a Peruvian researcher who was just completing his thesis on tracking the squid fleet with nighttime satellite imagery from NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). After three days, we crossed into the Southern Hemisphere with the ship’s engineer taking a celebratory swim across the Equator. Later that afternoon, we sighted the desolate coast of San Cristobal Island, and after rounding the sheer rock cliffs of Sleeping Lion Rock, we entered the island’s main port.

Sea Lions on the docks of San Cristobal with the Brigitte Bardot in the distance.
Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

We were held up in San Cristobal for a few days dealing with customs and inspections. This delay gave me a chance a to see bit of the island’s interior and review the latest information I had on the fleet we were tracking. Our data came from three sources, vessel AIS broadcasts, VIIRS night imagery, and interestingly two synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images of the fleet provided by Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) as we were heading out. While SAR imagery is acquired routinely by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 system over land and coastal areas it’s unusual to have imagery over the open ocean. So we were lucky to have access to a few shots of the fleet provided by KSAT from Canada’s Radarsat-2 satellite. This allowed us to make a comparison to our usual tracking sources for the fleet, AIS and VIIRS night imagery.

Synthetic aperture radar covering a portion of the squid fleet provided by Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT). Those vessel detections outlined in green were found by KSAT to align closely with AIS broadcasts. Detections outlined in red could not be identified confidently with AIS. The inset on the lower right shows at larger scale the detection of the squid jigger Hsiang Man Ching. The large number of unidentified (red) detections was likely due to limited satellite AIS reception and does not necessarily indicate that the vessels were not broadcasting AIS.

AIS gives vessel locations and (usually) vessel identities. VIIRS gives us an approximate count of the number of vessels with their fishing lights lit up on a particular night. However, with no law requiring AIS use and the fact that VIIRS imagery is relatively low resolution (and still untested against this particular fleet), we suspected that these data sources might be giving us an incomplete picture of the total fleet activity. For these reasons, it was useful to make a comparison with the two SAR images since they should pick up every vessel present in the area, provided they are metal and above a certain size. Ultimately, comparison between the SAR vessel detections and total AIS broadcasts showed that despite a number of SAR vessel detections that could not be identified with AIS (outlined in red in the figure from KSAT above) the total number vessels detected by both systems was approximately the same, indicating high AIS use for the fleet, but also with a few clusters of radar detected vessels not associated with AIS.

After refueling on Baltra, a barren island with a former US military base, and installing a new satellite communications system, we set off on September 19th. In the evening we rounded the north cape of Santa Isabela Island and headed west into a vast stretch of the open Pacific. Ahead of us the nearest land was 3,000 nautical miles away in the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia. We would be venturing across some of the most remote surface of our planet on a voyage that would launch Operation Mamacocha, Sea Shepherd’s newest campaign fittingly named after the Incan sea goddess.

To be continued…

Captain Chris fixes the antenna of the Brigitte Bardot before departing the Galapagos. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Video Clips of John at CBUC

Check out these standup interviews John had with Globo News when he presented at the Brazilian Congress on Protected Areas (CBUC) in August.

How can we illustrate the problem of overfishing from space?

How the Silver Sea 2 fishing vessel was caught with slaves on board

The SkyTruther path: an intern’s excursion to understanding offshore oil (part I)

Practice does not guarantee perfection but it is a diligent educator. During my first week of orientation at SkyTruth, the other interns and I filtered through Sentinel 1 radar satellite imagery on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) online portal, compressed large .tiff image files using the command-line, and constructed final, publishable visuals in QGIS – a free, open source geographic information system (GIS), enabling users to create, view, edit, and analyze geospatial data. Essentially, we learned the fundamentals of finding, processing, and analyzing imagery.

Subsequent to grasping the basics, I worked on catching my first ocean offender by clicking through images, zooming in and out of rasters, and adjusting min and max values. Eventually, I spotted several shadowy slithers. Possible identification: oil leak.

Oil slicks off the coast of China.

The first image I discovered at SkyTruth.

Before hopscotching to conclusions, I checked in with mentor, Dr. Ry Covington (Doctorate of Philosophy; he’s not the medical type but he knows a thing about bodies – bodies of water, that is). Without hesitation, Ry confirmed my sighting as plausible. Three likely slicks from three unidentified sources. Mission success, phase two initiated: annotate.

When annotating an image, there are certain guidelines to follow. Most of the metadata – basic information needed to read a visual such as image credit/source, author, scale-bar, and date – is there. However, I did not include any boxed nouns or pointy things denoting the white zit-like points, or running, dark mascara streaks. Reflecting, I should have marked up this version more; I should have labeled the several pimples as unidentified sources, and measured the length of the eyelash-lacquer lines, ticketing them as slicks. Instead, I let the caption clamor over the image.

My first caption went something like this: “This image displays three leaks from several unidentified sources, off the coast of Guangzhou Province, China (near Hong Kong).”

That was all I got. New to the practice in general and unfamiliar with that latitude, I didn’t have much to say. So to boost productivity, I harvested a separate, bluer pair of eyes. My advisor with three first names, Christian James Thomas, looked over my caption. He was particularly picky with diction. One word, to be precise: leaks. Backspacing five times, Christian typed ‘slick’. Slick? Like ‘smooth’ or ‘glossy’? Or maybe like Eric Slick, the drummer of my favorite band, Dr. Dog? I wish, but certainly not.

‘Slick’ has various definitions, but to the SkyTruth team, slick typically describes flat water. Smooth surfaces on satellite radar imagery could signify oil, algae, lack of wind, or the like. What we are interested in is the accidental or purposeful release of oil or oily waste that may be a result of drilling, disposal, or disaster. Leak or spill is too specific, too assuming. I learned why this was after confusing slicks with a number of other ocean junk. When examining satellite evidence, slicks are often muddled by air and ocean current due to lag time between spill and image capture – this phenomenon also contributes to why some slicks exist without suspect in sight. Other times, slicks can be confused with false positives from weather events, natural disasters, coastal features, natural seeps, and other anomalies.

Bilge dumps off the coast of China.

This figure displays two likely slicks from intersecting bilge dumps off the coast of China. Due to their kinky shapes, these slicks are likely several days old; this image also shows the influence of time and natural forces on slick appearance.

Although I discovered how to be more transparent with terminology and make better imagery-based speculations, I did not know enough about slicks themselves. Oil naturally exists in the earth, and we harvest it to power our consumptive, energetic lifestyles. Sometimes, the oil itself leaks. In other other cases, wastewater produced during offshore drilling processes is released by us. This produced water is known as brine. Brine contains inorganic substances, toxic matter, and variably sized oil particles that must be properly disposed of or treated before release; it can be treated on platform and discharged into open water, transported to an offsite facility treatment or disposal facility, or put into beneficial reuse – for irrigation, recycled flowback fluid for other drilling operations, or as a substance for ice control (“Produced Water 101”, 2017).

Unlike shoplifting or arson, oil slicks are not always a result of unlawfulness. Some slicks are consequences of legal dumping – legality depending on individual cases in regard to international and country approvals. Accidental spills and leaks also occur and must be cleaned up. However, not all slicks are legally permitted or accidental and concern arises when oil slicks appear without record. Bilge dumping is one indicator of purposeful, often illegal, offshore pollution. To relieve ship weight and space, ships release oily waste from their engine and fuel systems, flushing residual material out of their cargo holds. This is highly illegal, as noted by a case in 2016, when Caribbean Princess, a luxury cruise ship under Princess Cruises, was fined $40 million for illegally discharging thousands of gallons of bilge. Senior intern, Daniel Nicholls, spotted a similar incident with another Princess Cruises ship in late January, indicating an ongoing dilemma.

A bilge dump from the Sapphire Princess.

Nicholls’s annotated Sentinel 1 radar satellite image of possible bilge dumping by Caribbean Princess-owned cruise ship, Sapphire Princess, as it heads towards Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Check out the full post here.

Now, I understand slicks not just as mascara tears or eyeliner blunders across a wrinkled ocean display; but as oily remnants with purpose and disposition. This comprehension allows me to more appropriately identify and interpret oil slicks in marine environments. As valuable as this was process and realization was, I registered that the beluga colored specks, aka the potential sources of the slicks, were still unidentified. Probably boats….

Who’s to blame? The murky dilemma of oil spill accountability

As global energy consumption continues to grow, Trinidad and Tobago — a small, Caribbean nation rich in oil and gas resources — has become one of the top exporters of liquified natural gas (LNG) in the world.  But the benefits to the economy of Trinidad and Tobago have come with a cost: chronic leaks and spills from aging oil and gas infrastructure on and offshore.

In early July, an abandoned oil well off of the west coast of Trinidad ruptured, sending dangerous hydrocarbons spewing into the ocean.  Trinidad and Tobago’s state-owned oil company Petrotrin stepped in to help address the rupture, but six days after the orphaned well erupted, the Ministry of Energy was still trying to determine which private company was responsible.

Insufficient documentation and incomplete record-keeping makes response efforts more difficult.  Gary Aboud, Corporate Secretary of Trinidad and Tobago’s Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), summed up the the deeper issue in Trinidad concisely: Who is the responsible party? Nothing has been done all week…There are literally hundreds of decades-old, capped, orphaned or abandoned wells which may not have been properly decommissioned, and are corroding.”

Map of Trinidad and Tobago's energy resources.

Energy map of Trinidad and Tobago. Source: The National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago.

Better documentation about ownership and better geospatial data showing oil and gas fields, pipelines, and abandoned wells would be a step in the right direction.  Some of this information is available but, as the map above shows, much of it is in a form that is very difficult to use. This energy map is pretty ‘busy’ — the various oil fields, gas fields, and pipelines depicted together make it difficult to use, especially in a crisis scenario like responding to an oil spill.

Officials need a comprehensive geospatial data set — filled with attributes like ownership or responsible party — that they can easily examine, especially during crises like this one.  One of my tasks as an intern at SkyTruth has been to pick apart the existing information (including the map above) and provide it as a robust geospatial data set that’s easy for the public to use.

A map of Trinidad and Tobago's gas fields and gas pipelines.

Gas fields and gas pipelines in Trinidad and Tobago, digitized from the map above.

I’ve digitized all of the oil and gas fields, pipelines, and existing platforms around Trinidad and Tobago, and I’m constantly adding in new fields and data that I’m collecting about these features.

Map of Trinidad and Tobago's oil fields and oil pipelines.

Oil fields and oil pipelines in Trinidad and Tobago, digitized from the map above.

I’m using these new data sets — combined with Sentinel 1 radar satellite imagery — to help monitor oil leaks and spills around Trinidad and Tobago like the one described above.  Having better geospatial data will improve not only how companies handle clean-ups, but will also provide local fisherfolk with more insight into leaks and spills from oil infrastructure as they happen.