National Oil Spill Commission Releases Final Report

Today, the Presidentially-appointed National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (aka “the spill commission”) released its long-awaited final report on their months-long investigation into the causes of the world’s largest accidental oil spill. The report was formally rolled out during a press event this morning. You can download it here, and view a multimedia presentation summarizing the report and the Commission’s recommendations.

The news conference included a fairly lengthy Q&A with reporters that featured some thoughtful and difficult questions for the commissioners. We tweeted what struck us at the time as some of the highlights of the session. Video of the news conference, which was broadcast by C-SPAN, should be available soon according to the Commission’s website.

One of the interesting quotes, from co-chairman William Reilly, was this helpful reminder: “Spills are predictable – they’re going to happen from time to time.”

Commissioners stressed that some of their recommendations can be implemented without any new legislation or funding – an important selling point given the renewed anti-regulation, “leave business alone” mood in Congress – but when commissioner Frances Beinecke was asked for the highest-priority recommendation of the commission she didn’t miss a beat:

Adequately fund the Interior Department so they can effectively enforce the rules and regulations that govern offshore oil and gas drilling.

That sure seems like a no-brainer, but when it comes to politics you can’t assume anything. I hope Congress is paying attention.

Stay tuned – there are other investigations still underway, so this is by no means the last word on the BP spill. We’re particularly interested in what the well-respected Chemical Safety Board turns up.

Final Hours Of The Deepwater Horizon – Why Did It Sink?

Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible drill rig sinking in the Gulf of Mexico, April 22, 2010, following blowout of BP’s Macondo well. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

The New York Times has published a detailed, harrowing account of the what it was like to be onboard the doomed Deepwater Horizon drill rig when the Macondo well blew out on the night of April 20, triggering a series of explosions that ignited an inferno and killed 11 men. One survivor tells his story on an accompanying video. A slide show includes new photos of the burning rig taken by a worker on a nearby boat in the final hours before the Deepwater Horizon sank into the Gulf of Mexico on April 22, initiating the biggest accidental oil spill in history.

This in-depth investigative piece also examines why the rig succumbed, despite the many safety systems onboard designed to prevent injury and protect the rig in the event of a catastrophic blowout:

What emerges is a stark and singular fact: crew members died and suffered terrible injuries because every one of the Horizon’s defenses failed on April 20. Some were deployed but did not work. Some were activated too late, after they had almost certainly been damaged by fire or explosions. Some were never deployed at all.”


Deepwater Horizon rig capsized and moments away from slipping beneath the waves in the Gulf of Mexico on April 22, 2010. One of the thrusters used to keep the rig on station is visible. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

National Oil Spill Commission Hearing, December 2-3, 2010 – SkyTruth Comment on Monitoring

Yesterday I attended the final public hearing of the presidentially-appointed National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (aka, the “Spill Commission”). The attendance was sparse – only about 15-20 folks were in the public audience, and several of those seemed to be Commission staff members. I hope people are watching this online (streaming here right now, until the meeting wraps up at 3pm this afternoon) because the staff reports and recommendations cover a broad range of issues, the Commission deliberation is thoughtful, and this is a good preview of what the final report to the President will – and will not – address.

During the public comment period, SkyTruth made a pitch to the Commission for implementing routine satellite monitoring for pollution detection. Here’s the text of our comment (written during my long pre-dawn train commute into DC yesterday):

Thank you Commissioners. My name is John Amos; I am a geologist and the president of SkyTruth, a non-profit organization in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. At SkyTruth we use satellite images and other remote-sensing data to study and illustrate environmental issues. During the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill we collected near-daily imagery from a variety of sources. With this imagery, and our expertise, we were able to

  • Effectively track and measure oil slicks
  • Make a conservative, science-based estimate of the flow rate within the first week of the spill
  • Show entrainment of the oil slick in the Loop Current
  • Show the dissipation of oil slicks following the July 15 closure of the Macondo well
  • Measure the total surface footprint of the spill in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico

We also stumbled on a small but persistent spill nearby, unrelated to the BP spill, and apparently known to the MMS and Coast Guard but generally not known to the public at large. This spill was caused by a group of wells damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and presumably leaking ever since.

Satellite images, especially radar images, have been regularly used for decades to detect and track oil pollution at sea. During the 1990s I personally performed dozens of commercial exploration studies for energy companies, using satellite images to detect small, persistent oil slicks caused by natural oil seeps on the seafloor worldwide. Now, with an expanded constellation of earth-observing satellites in orbit, including several radar imaging satellites, routine ocean monitoring is technically feasible.

In your final report to the President, I hope the Commission recommends that the nation moves expeditiously to implement routine, publicly transparent satellite monitoring of U.S. waters to detect and assess pollution and other threats, and to assure the American public that their government is effectively managing and protecting our vital marine resources.

Thank you.

Platform 23051 / Ocean Saratoga Site Revisited

Remember way back in mid-summer, during the peak of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, when we found an unrelated leak in the vicinity? We noticed a small but persistent slick on satellite images from multiple dates, originating near the location of Platform 23051. Photographer J Henry Fair flew over the location and found, not a platform, but a semisubmersible drill rig on the site, and a visible oil slick trailing off into the distance. Turns out the rig, the Ocean Saratoga, was working to plug 26 wells that had been damaged by Hurricane Ivan back in 2004 and have presumably been leaking steadily ever since. The former platform on this location is gone – toppled by Ivan, or damaged to the point where it was removed (we still don’t know what happened to it).

Apparently plugging this chronic leak is not a high-priority project. The Saratoga disappeared shortly after our discovery (off to another, more lucrative drilling job?). Well, it’s back on site again. This time photographer Gerry Ellis captured the action, once again on a flight by SouthWings volunteer pilot Tom Hutchings. Read about their flight on Gerry’s blog.

Here are a couple of Gerry’s shots, taken about 1pm CST on November 23, 2010. Bright sunglint is flashing off the water in the lower left of both images, but a thin oil slick can be seen originating near the rig and drifting off toward the upper left:

Photo (c) Gerry Ellis/Minden Pictures courtesy SouthWings


Photo (c) Gerry Ellis/Minden Pictures courtesy SouthWings

Routine satellite image monitoring of the Gulf, and anywhere else we’re drilling or considering drilling, would help answer a lot of questions about the frequency of smaller leaks and spills like this one – and could dispel public uncertainty about how our marine resources are being managed.

SkyTruth-MCBI Study Looks Back at BP / Gulf Spill, Looks Forward With Recommendations

[Full news release here]

A new study by SkyTruth and MCBI shows how BP and the Federal government dramatically understated the amount of oil and gas gushing into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon exploded. The study, “Impacts, Perception, and Policy Implications of the Deepwater Horizon Oil and Gas Disaster” by MCBI’s Dr. Elliott Norse and SkyTruth’s John Amos, appears in a special issue of Environmental Law Reporter News and Analysis, a publication of the Environmental Law Institute. The article can be downloaded here (PDF file).

The article chronicles 9 significant observations made by SkyTruth and other independent analysts using satellite images, including:

  • Our calculation, released just one week after the rig exploded, that the spill was at least 20 times larger than the official estimate and had already surpassed the Exxon Valdez incident as our nation’s worst oil spill
  • The surprising discovery of another nearby oil spill, a chronic leak from storm-damaged wells, unrelated to the BP disaster
  • Visual confirmation of oil entering the Gulf’s Loop Current
  • A cumulative BP spill footprint spanning 68,000 square miles of the Gulf’s surface, larger than the state of Oklahoma

Moreover, the authors point out that public attention was overly focused on the easily visible impacts of oil on the beaches and marshes, not the unseen impacts far offshore, in the depths, where the spill was occurring. The authors pose 8 important questions about the hidden subsea impacts that must be addressed and applied to future ocean policy and spill-response decisionmaking.

Finally, Dr. Norse offers 9 major conclusions from this tragic experience and 5 recommendations for safer, environmentally smarter offshore drilling and ocean management policy. He emphasizes the importance of incorporating offshore energy development into the new National Ocean Policy using ecosystem-based spatial planning.

Dr. Norse was the Environmental Protection Agency’s expert on impacts of oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico during the late 1970s, before he founded MCBI. Mr. Amos spent 10 years working for companies that help the oil and gas industry find new places to drill before he founded SkyTruth.
Like the similar Montara blowout and spill off Australia last year, the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster demonstrated again that expert independent analysts can contribute crucial, timely information to the public during an environmental crisis.

“For future pollution detection and monitoring, it’s critical that we add radar imaging satellites to the nation’s civilian fleet so that we no longer rely on foreign-operated satellites to provide this information,” Mr. Amos said.

SkyTruth uses satellite images, remote sensing and digital mapping to investigate and illustrate environmental conditions and incidents worldwide. Founded in 2001, SkyTruth is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Shepherdstown WV.

Marine Conservation Biology Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to securing protection for the world’s marine ecosystems. Founded in 1996, MCBI is headquartered in Bellevue WA, and has offices in Glen Ellen CA and Washington DC.