Mariner Energy Gas and Oil Rig – MODIS Imagery, September 2, 2010

Fighting fire on the Mariner Energy platform in Vermilion Block 380, Gulf of Mexico, September 2, 2010. Photo by Greenpeace. More photos here.

Here at SkyTruth we finally got NASA/MODIS satellite imagery taken yesterday of the Gulf of Mexico, covering both the BP/Deepwater Horizon/Macondo well site and the location of the Mariner Energy platform that caught on fire yesterday morning while workers were painting it. Everyone was rescued and the fire was extinguished later that day. Early reports of a growing sheen of oil in the water were later retracted by the Coast Guard, and the seven wells under that platform have reportedly been shut in and are not leaking.

MODIS/Terra satellite image showing Mariner Energy platform (magenta cross) relative to BP spill site (yellow cross). Inset shows MODIS/Aqua imagery of the platform location taken an hour or so later.

NASA reported that the MODIS / Terra image taken at about 1pm local time showed a small plume of smoke from the burning rig, but the alleged plume is located about 40 miles northwest of the stated platform location, which we have verified by overlaying government GIS data for the locations of all oil and gas platforms in the Gulf. An offshore weather station on a Shell oil platform in the general vicinity reported wind consistently from the east to east-southeast. So we’re not sure what that reddish-brown blotch is that caught NASA’s eye – possibly a large patch of Sargassum, although it does seem to throw a shadow like the adjacent clouds, so maybe 1) it is a different smoke plume, or 2) everyone has misidentified the Mariner platform, which is very unlikely. Another little Gulf mystery.

BOTTOM LINE: We don’t see anything on the Terra image to indicate either smoke or oil slick around the Mariner platform location, but it is pretty cloudy. The Aqua image taken at about 2pm local time (inset) is clearer, but we don’t see anything unusual on it either. We’ll keep looking at the area for the next few days but this seems to be just another one of the 100+ “run-of-the-mill” fires and explosions that are reported on Gulf oil and gas platforms every year.

Mariner Energy Gas and Oil Rig – Location Map

Here’s a map showing the location of Mariner’s burning rig relative to BP’s infamous Macondo well (still only temporarily plugged, awaiting a final “bottom kill” operation). The Mariner gas and oil rig is situated near the edge of the continental shelf, 100 miles off the Lousiana coast, 240 miles west of Macondo, in a water depth of 340 feet (surprisingly shallow at that distance offshore):

(Click on map for full-sized version)

It’s busy out there. We’ve overlain active oil and gas platforms (orange dots) and oil and gas pipelines (green lines). Seafloor bathymetry is shown in shades of blue. All that rumply-looking stuff is the broad belt of salt domes and basins that makes the Gulf a really unique place, geologically and biologically.

UPDATE 9/2/10 6pm EDT – The Washington Post is reporting that the fire has been extinguished, and the 7 wells have all been successfully shut in (i.e., closed) and are not leaking. The Coast Guard is backing off their earlier report of a small oil slick. We’re still waiting for today’s NASA / MODIS satellite imagery to become available for download, but NASA has already published one of the images showing a small plume of smoke from the burning platform earlier this afternoon. We’ll take a look at the images acquired for the next few days as well.

Oil Rig On Fire Off Louisiana Coast

US Coast Guard photo of burning Mariner Energy platform off Louisiana, 9/2/10. Source: AP via Miami Herald.

Breaking news – we just learned that an oil platform operated by Mariner Energy about 100 miles off the Louisiana Coast is on fire. 13 workers, who were on board when an explosion occurred about 9am Central time today, have been rescued from the water; one was injured.

The platform (Vermilion Oil Platform 380) is in water about 340 feet deep, 200 miles west of BP’s Macondo well that caused this year’s massive oil spill.

The Coast Guard is reporting a one-mile-long sheen of oil is spreading from the platform. It’s unclear how many wells are at this platform, which produced an average of 9.2 million cubic feet of natural gas and 60,000 gallons of oil and liquid natural-gas condensate per day during the last week of August.

Based on these numbers we think the potential for a major oil spill is low, but we still don’t know what caused the explosion.

SkyTruth is working to get satellite imagery of the area. We’ll let you know as soon as we see anything. Follow us on Twitter to get the latest updates.

Hurricane Katrina – 5 Years Ago Today

Marking a sad anniversary today: it’s been 5 years since Hurricane Katrina churned through the Gulf as a Category 5 monster, pounded communities in Louisiana and Mississippi, and overwhelmed New Orleans. The human tragedy was appalling. The environmental news, at first downplayed by government officials (and to this day misrepresented by some offshore drilling proponents), wasn’t very good either.

MODIS satellite image shows Hurricane Katrina hitting offshore oil and gas fields with Category 5 strength on August 28, 2005.

Just a few weeks later, Hurricane Rita ripped through the Gulf. Together these two storms wreaked havoc on coastal and offshore oil and gas facilities. According to that agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, and the US Coast Guard, over 1oo offshore platforms were totally destroyed; more than 450 breaks were reported in seafloor pipelines; and, all told, more than 9 million gallons of oil spilled from damaged offshore and coastal infrastructure.

Map showing offshore oil and gas infrastructure (pipelines in green) directly affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August-September 2005.

Six weeks after Rita, that tally was greatly increased when the barge T/B DBL 152 struck the unmarked ruins of an offshore oil platform that Rita had demolished. The barge was loaded with more than 5 million gallons of “slurry oil,” a heavy residual product of the gasoline-refining process that is often used for fuel oil. The crippled barge became grounded in shallow water, then capsized, dumping almost 2 million gallons that settled on the seafloor. Only 5% of this oil was recovered.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill – Large Underwater Plume of Oil Described, Still Much Unaccounted For

Just back from a week’s vacation and look at what we missed:

Scientists at Woods Hole announced their discovery and detailed mapping of a large underwater plume of finely dispersed oil from the BP spill. Measuring 35 km long x 2 km wide x 200 m thick, it was about 900 meters (3,000 feet) below the surface and drifting slowly southwest from the leaking Macondo well. The team was tracking this plume in late June, up until Hurricane Alex chased them back to shore. The researchers said it appeared to be breaking down and dissipating much more slowly than expected, probably because of the very low water temperature at that depth.

The combined concentration of several key indicator hydrocarbons (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and total xylenes) in the plume was at least 50 micrograms (millionths of a gram) per liter. That’s very dilute, although it may have some toxic effects.

How much of the “missing” oil was in that plume? The scientists calculated that about 6-7% of the 2.2-2.6 million gallon daily flow rate from the well was represented in this plume during the 10 days they were measuring it. They conclude that

the total amount of petroleum hydrocarbons in the plume and the full extent of possible risks to marine biota remain uncertain.