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.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill – Are Shrimpers Inadvertently Churning Up Oil?

There have been conflicting reports coming from coastal Lousiana since October 22, suggesting that large areas of East and West Bays near Southwest Pass are covered with long streamers of what appears to be weathered oil, possibly originating from the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill. Some of the local fishermen insist it’s oil; the Coast Guard thinks it’s an algal bloom. Samples taken by the Coast Guard are awating analysis. [UPDATE 10/28/10 10:00 am ET – LSU scientists confirm the substance is mostly algae with only trace amounts of oil]

Oil or algae? Photo of West Bay, Louisiana taken October 22. Source: Matthew Hinton via the Times-Picayune. Photo gallery here.

At SkyTruth we’re concerned that fishing activity could potentially stir up any oil that’s sitting on the seafloor, resuspending it in the water column. We don’t know if that’s what has happened near Southwest Pass. But we do know that bottom-trawling for shrimp in the Gulf routinely churns up the muddy seafloor, creating long sediment-laden plumes that trail for miles behind the trawlers and can be seen on satellite images. Check out our gallery of trawling images, and read more about it on this blog.

Google Earth image showing muddy plume of sediment raised by a shrimp trawler at work along the Louisiana coast. Image taken before the BP spill.

NOAA reports they haven’t yet found any signs of oil sitting on the Gulf seafloor. Other scientists claim they found inches-thick layers of oil on the seafloor on research cruises in September and “vast amounts” of oil on the seafloor in October. It seems reasonable to assume that if those scientists are correct, and if bottom-trawling for shrimp is occurring now in places where layers of oil are sitting on the seafloor, that oil will be disturbed by trawling.

We don’t know what the effects of that could be. It might help the oil biodegrade more quickly. But it will also repeatedly expose marine life, including commercially important species, to oil that would otherwise remain on the ocean floor.

This suggests to us that it’s very important to quickly, accurately and thoroughly survey the Gulf seafloor for residual oil, so we can let shrimpers know what areas to avoid for now.

Shrimp trawler working in mysterious substance floating in West Bay, Louisiana on October 23. Note plume behind the trawler. Source: Erika Blumenfeld via Trouthout.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill – Continuing Impacts

From our remote satellite perspective here at SkyTruth, most of the observable impacts from the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were dissipating in late July, in the wake of Tropical Storm Bonnie.

But up close and personal, people are still dealing with the oil. We just received this report today on our Gulf Oil Spill Tracker site:

We live on Navarre beach Florida. While walking along the Santa Rosa Sounds yesterday 10.14.2010, I say many, many tar balls that had washed up on the beach of the Sound. There were still others attached to the sea weed still in the water.

News accounts have provided cause for optimism, including good numbers of some fish species and birds in the area, but also note that oil continues to persist in a variety of environments. And for other economically and biologically important species, such as bluefin tuna, it may take some time for spill-related problems to manifest themselves.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill – Cumulative Oil Slick Footprints

Thought it might be interesting to take a look at the work done by others on the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and compare SkyTruth’s total cumulative oil slick analysis to theirs. Here is our analysis, based on visual assessment of dozens of satellite images acquired from late April through mid July:

Cumulative BP / Deepwater Horizon oil slick footprint (red). Analysis by SkyTruth.

And here’s the official analysis done by NOAA, using many of the same satellite images, but also including many full-resolution radar satellite images that the public did not have access to (the US doesn’t operate any civilian radar satellites, so the radar images were purchased from foreign companies that don’t allow NOAA to “redistribute” the images):

Cumulative BP / Deepwater Horizon oil slick footprint (orange). Analysis by NOAA, compiled by SkyTruth.

The folks at ROFFS (Roffer’s Ocean Forecasting Service) also analyzed satellite images and other oceanographic data throughout the duration of the spill, and just released their preliminary cumulative analysis. We don’t have it digitally yet, but we’ve clipped their graphic to roughly show the same area in our two Google Earth-based maps above:

Cumulative BP / Deepwater Horizon oil slick footprint (brown). Analysis by ROFFS.

Overall, the NOAA and ROFFS analyses are in general agreement. The total NOAA oil-slick footprint covers 46,299 square miles (119,915 km2). SkyTruth’s analysis is similar except for our inclusion of possible oil sheen entrained in the Loop Current and entering Florida Straits late in May, before a large clockwise eddy (Eddy Franklin) got organized and effectively kept the slick bottled up the the northern Gulf for the remainder of the summer. The total oil-slick footprint in our analysis is 68,000 square miles (176,119 km2).