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.

Big Changes Coming to SkyTruth Alerts

For the last year or so we’ve been working to revamp SkyTruth Alerts, an app we built for ourselves in 2011, and then opened up to the public a year later. The Alerts lets you see environmental incidents and notifications on a map as they are reported, and allows subscribers to sign up to receive email notifications about reported environmental incidents in areas they care about (aka “Areas of Interest” or AOIs). Technology has made a few leaps since then, so it was time for an overhaul. We’ve added some new features too. We’re excited about the changes, and we hope you will be too.  

What’s Changed?

In a lot of ways, the new SkyTruth Alerts app works the way it always has: anyone can view the map and see the latest reported alerts for a particular area. These notifications come from federal and state websites that we have “scraped” to obtain the reports. The largest source of data is the nationwide oil and hazardous materials spill reports collected by the National Response Center (i.e., NRC Reports). Anyone can sign up to receive email notifications about incidents in their AOIs.

New and Restored Sources of Alerts

As part of the Alerts revamp, we’ve restored and/or added the following sources of alerts:

  • West Virginia oil & gas drilling permits –  restored
  • Colorado oil & gas drilling permits – new
  • Florida Pollution Reports – new

Account Management

We’ve also added account management so you can update your AOIs or change your email address more easily. Signing up for an account will also let you take advantage of new tools we’ll be rolling out in the coming months (we’ll keep you posted after the launch).

New Look!

This is what SkyTruth Alerts looks like right now:

This is what you’ll see when you first open the revamped SkyTruth Alerts (subject to some possible changes over the next few weeks, as we respond to feedback and suggestions from our alpha testers):

New Features!

Here are a few of the new features we’ve added:

New Ways to Create AOIs

Right now, SkyTruth Alerts lets you create AOIs that are a square or rectangle, but that’s not always the ideal shape. In the new version, we’ve added some tools that give you a little more control: you can draw a polygon, take a “snapshot” your current map view, or select a state or county boundary from a list of pre-defined AOIs):

After you create an AOI, you can edit your AOI (or delete it and start again) before giving it a name and saving it to your My Areas list.

Filter Out the Noise

We’ve added several ways to filter what you see in Alerts, so that you can focus on what’s important to you. SkyTruth Alerts shows you the 100 most-recent incidents in your map view (double what’s shown in the current version), so filtering has the added benefit of showing you more of the types of alerts you want to see. You can filter alerts by:

Date Range

Type of Alert

Base Layers

Select from a couple of different map backdrops (“base layers”) so you can focus on what’s important to you. Below is a screenshot of SkyTruth Alerts using the “Minimal” base layer.

Alerts Within AOI Only

This can be useful if there are a lot of alerts in the surrounding area that are more recent than the alerts within your AOI.  

In the image below, there are only a few alerts are shown in the West Virginia AOI:

However, once alerts are limited to within the AOI, the picture changes:

New Ways to View Alerts Markers

In some places, there are many, many alerts in the same location. This can make it hard to move around the map because you end up clicking or tapping an alert marker when you wanted move around in the map view. It can also be hard to “grab” a particular alert marker from a stack of them.

In the first screenshot, clustering is turned on, making it easier to move around the map. Click on a cluster marker to zoom in on that area and see more alerts.

Once you’ve zeroed in on your area of interest, it can still be hard to see the forest for the trees in some locations. In the next image, clustering is turned off. You can see that there are a lot of alerts in this area, but how many exactly?

The image below shows the same area as the one above. If you click on one of the alert markers, it will “explode,” showing you all of the alerts in that location. Click on any of the exploded markers to view the report.

So when’s the Launch?

We’re getting ready to begin alpha testing in in mid-November. Lots of our current subscribers have volunteered to be testers and will be helping us put the finishing touches on the app. A big thank you to all of you who are helping us with that! Testing will last four weeks, and during that time we’ll be making continuous updates based on feedback we receive. We expect to go live with the new version by the end of the year.

A look back at 20 years of oil and gas permitting in Wyoming

A shift in priorities of the EPA under the current administration has raised awareness of an increase in oil and gas permitting across the USA. However, the increase began before the current administration. Although the federal government controls most regulations and laws that affect permitting, other factors such as global oil and gas prices, advances in drilling and production technology, and state governments’ willingness to accommodate investors have an effect on permitting and investment by energy companies. It should be pointed out that permitting does not necessarily indicate drilling as companies can request permits but then hold on to the permits until either eventually drilling, requesting a new permit, or selling the permit to another company. This can tie up land for decades and is covered in more detail by The Wilderness Society’s report: “Land Hoarders: How Stockpiling Leases is Costing Taxpayers”.

Wyoming has an economy that is built on coal and oil, but in the 80s and early 90s it was suffering from an oil glut that caused prices to drop. As prices began to recover throughout the 1990s and 2000s and eventually boom (Fig.1), some companies sought to diversify into natural gas (read more in James Hamilton’s paper “Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08). Many began to drill for gas in the coal fields of Wyoming, and to apply the relatively new technology of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to extract natural gas from previously uneconomic, low-permeability sandstone and shale reservoirs found throughout the Rocky Mountain West.

Oil and gas prices since 1985.

Figure 1. Oil and gas prices since 1985.

The oil and gas boom ended abruptly in 2008 when the effect of the global financial crisis reached the oil and gas markets and prices plummeted.

To better understand the effect these events had on Wyoming, I analyzed permits for new oil and gas wells, issued by the state over the past 20 years. This data is freely available from the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commision website: http://wogcc.wyo.gov/. First, I should point out that this data has inconsistencies and holes, due to apparent data entry errors like missing or incorrect dates, missing latitude or longitude, typos, etc. Unfortunately, this meant nearly 24% of the total permits had to be left out of my analysis. Some errors still remain, as seen in this map of permit applications received by the state (Fig. 2). Each county is colored differently and there appear to be some permits which either have the wrong county listed or incorrect map coordinates.

Distribution of oil and gas drilling permit applications, color coded by county.

Figure 2. Distribution of oil and gas drilling permit applications, color coded by county.

What immediately stands out is the relatively densely-packed permits in Campbell county, in the north-east of the state. When I looked closer at this county over time, I saw that most of the permit applications were submitted during the beginning of the boom of 1998-2008. This is quickly followed by a sharp drop around 2000, the time hydraulic fracking made drilling in other parts of the state (and country) more profitable. The original method of coal bed methane drilling was considered uneconomical compared to this new fracking method. At that time, I saw a rise in permit applications across other counties (Fig. 3), but far more subdued than the earlier rush, possibly because fracking made deposits across the country viable and so the increase was more widespread across and outside Wyoming. This is just a theory though, these could easily be due to business strategies of companies “capturing” land before their competitors.

Applications for oil and gas drilling permits received over time by county.

Figure 3. Applications for oil and gas drilling permits received over time by county.

The rate of permit applications slows for all counties as the boom ended around 2008 with a short-lived rise leading up to 2016. The boom and bust periods can be seen more clearly when I looked at the overall quantity of permit applications across Wyoming (Fig. 4).

Total number of oil and gas drilling permits applied for in Wyoming.

Figure 4. Total number of oil and gas drilling permits applied for in Wyoming.

The initial rush of the boom was followed by a dip and second climb as fracking technology took off. This is followed by the bust of 2008. There is a slight rise again around 2016, but it drops off by 2017. The effect of this activity is closely reflected in unemployment figures for the state (Fig. 5). Considering that I am looking at permitting however, and not drilling, this correlation should be seen as a reflection of oil and gas companies’ business activities in a holistic sense.

Unemployment rate for Wyoming over the past 20 years.

Figure 5. Unemployment rate for Wyoming over the past 20 years.

Initially, there’s an overall steady decline in unemployment as the boom sweeps up employees but this rockets up once the bust comes along. Interestingly, between 2012 and 2016, there is a steady rise in permit applications which is reflected by the steady drop in unemployment but this is interrupted by a bump in unemployment around 2016. The restoring of the unemployment level after 2016 is not reflected in the drop in permit applications, however. Those appear to drop off.

Although there are booms and busts, the overall number of well permits is constantly increasing (by simple fact of the number of new permits applied for always outweighing the number of permits expiring). The animated image below (Img. 1) shows the growth of oil and gas permit applications as companies move across the state.

Image 1. Permits applied for over the past 20 years.

Image 1. Permits applied for over the past 20 years. (Click to see time-series)

Graphs and maps give us a good idea of the trends but sometimes it is even more helpful to see the physical reality of these numbers.  This is an area in the most heavily permitted county, Campbell (Img. 2).

Image 2. Comparison of an area of Campbell county from July 1999 to July 2018.

As well as the dramatic increase in well pads (i.e., drilling sites), these images show the addition of access roads threading across the landscape.

What this data doesn’t show is the large amount of orphaned wells that were left behind after the price of oil and natural gas dropped in 2008. This has left a legacy of about 3600 abandoned wells (scroll to bottom for total number of orphaned wells currently tracked by Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commision). Often the state, and therefore, the taxpayers, are left to handle this burden because the responsible companies are either unknown, unable to cover the cleanup costs, or have declared bankruptcy and disappeared. Understandably, the state would prefer to see the wells operate once more rather than paying considerable amounts of money to seal them up and restore the land. But these aging, unsecured wells pose a threat to the environment and to public health.  

Many of the coalbed methane wells built at the beginning of the boom were approved with permission to dump untreated “flowback water” on the surface. The companies convinced the state that this  fluid, coming straight from the coal seams targeted by the drilling, would be beneficial for the parched land even though most of the untreated fluid was highly saline. Also, the effect of flooding the land with large volumes of water was extremely unnatural to the existing ecosystem. Many areas that were normally good for grazing became unusable because they were flooded with this salty water. Land that was adapted to little rainfall and snowmelt was suddenly exposed to a constant flow of brine. The companies pushed the idea of plentiful of water for agriculture and wildlife to drink while downplaying the issue of the quality of the water. The state also towed this line while court battles challenging the “beneficial use” permits, led by landowners and conservation groups, were upheld in court. Eventually, they implemented a water-to-gas ratio cap on surface discharges since many of the wells were producing plenty of salty water but little or even no gas at all.

One other trend that I discovered while scrutinizing the permit database was the time it took to process these permits (Fig. 6 & 7). Plotting permit approval times at first appears to show a distribution that follows the general trends that I’ve seen so far, tracking the boom and bust periods. For comparison, I plotted these for both the year of permit application (Fig. 6) and year of approval (Fig. 7).

Figure 6. Permit approval time arranged by year of application.

Figure 6. Permit approval time arranged by year of application.

 

Figure 7. Permit approval time arranged by year of approval.

Figure 7. Permit approval time arranged by year of approval.

The red lines track the annual average wait time and give a clearer picture of the trend. The spread of wait times fluctuate far more than the actual average wait time. Although the average does not appear to fluctuate much, the scale is a little deceptive as the average wait time extends from 15 days in 1998 to 40 days in the year 2000. The average wait time appears to initially rise with the start of each drilling boom but even out fairly quickly. This changes later when the average wait time climbs sharply around 2013. By 2017, the average wait time has increased considerably to 130 days.

These trends offer insight into the recent history of oil and gas permitting activity in Wyoming. It should be noted that although there was a lot of ‘noise’ in the data that I had to correct or discard, the remaining data helps give me a clearer sense of how oil and gas development is driving change on Wyoming’s landscape. My analysis has been based purely on the history of permitting in Wyoming, not actual drilling. For an analysis on drilling, please look at the Fracktracker Alliance’s page on oil and gas activity in Wyoming. I hope you’ve enjoyed this breakdown of permit data for Wyoming. I hope to take a similar look at other states’ drilling permits, so stay tuned!

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.

Benzene Contamination Caused by Fracking. Or Something Else?

In Erie, Colorado, a local mom is understandably alarmed by the level of benzene — a known human carcinogen — in her 6-year-old son’s blood. There is plenty of drilling and fracking happening around Erie, including a wellpad 1,300′ to the west of the Erie elementary school that was built in 2012 and now hosts at least 8 producing wells. Prevailing winds in Erie typically blow from the west, putting the elementary school and the neighboring middle school directly downwind from this large drilling site, making the drilling operations an obvious suspect for the cause of this contamination. Slam dunk, right? 

Map showing locations of Erie, Colorado elementary and middle schools, and nearby features of interest noted in the text.

But the situation may not be that simple, as illustrated in the map above. The schools have a much closer neighbor — a gasoline station that’s right across the street, 250′ north of the elementary school, that has been there since at least 1993. When I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s, the problem of fuel oozing out of leaking underground storage tanks (yes, we called them LUSTs) at homes, gas stations, on farms, and other sites around the country was just beginning to get nationwide attention and prompted a suite of new rules from the EPA. Gas stations around the country were required to replace their old tanks. Many sites had plumes of gasoline floating on the local water table, sometimes migrating off the gas station property and into surrounding neighborhoods, sending fumes into basements and chemicals into water-supply wells. Gasoline contains benzene. Could kids at these schools be exposed to old gasoline contamination from this nearby filling station? Or to gasoline vapors being released today, as customers fill up their vehicles?
 

Looking south-southwest at gasoline filling station across the street from Erie Elementary School (just beyond the treeline).

There’s also a lumber mill 900′ south of the elementary school property line, and it too has been there since at least 1993. The mill probably operates diesel-powered equipment, and may even have its own diesel fuel storage tank onsite. Diesel fuel and fumes, and exhaust from diesel engines, all contain benzene. This site is not upwind from the school, so I would consider it a less-likely source of exposure for the kids there.
 
And I don’t know where this boy lives; maybe he’s grown up with a filling station or some other benzene-spewing industrial site nearby.  He may not even go to this school.  
 
None of this speculation — and it is pure speculation on our part — is intended to deflect attention from the increasingly well-documented health impacts that result from living near modern drilling and fracking operations. Everybody’s situation is different, and we just want to be sure we’re pointing our fingers at the right culprit so that A) we’ll be taken seriously, and B) the problem will be fixed. Sometimes that culprit may be oil and gas drilling. At other times it may be something that we’re overlooking.  

Lease Sale Cancellation near Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Conservation victories are often measured in terms of what did not happen. We measure them in terms of species that did not go extinct, of land clearing that did not take place, of anti-environmental legislation that did not become law.

This is another of those oblique victory stories about something that did not happen. If you’ve been following our work over the last year, you may have noticed that we’ve done some work monitoring the sale of oil and gas leases on public land in the vicinity of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. Most recently, we posted about a lease sale that was scheduled for March 8, 2018. Some of the proposed lease parcels included in this sale fell extremely close to the boundary of a 10 mile buffer zone around the park that had previously been established in agreement with local Native American tribes to protect the viewshed, soundscape, and visitor experience to the park, as well as the numerous Ancestral Pueblo ruins and artifacts found throughout this historically significant region. Oil and gas drilling in these parcels had the potential to impact the UNESCO World Heritage status of the park.

This map shows the 8 leases (in red) which were scheduled for auction on March 8, 2018. Lease parcels which were previously tabled for further review (in orange). The boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park are displayed in green.

On March 2, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that the lease sale scheduled for March 8 would be deferred, to give the agency time to “complete an ongoing analysis of more than 5,000 cultural sites in the proposed leasing area.” Zinke cited questions about the sale that had been raised by public stakeholders, stating “We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation.” It is important to note that these leases could come up for sale again in the future, but in the meantime, it is a comfort to enjoy this sale that did not happen. The deferral of oil and gas leases near Chaco Culture National Historical Park is an important reminder that public comment and protest have a very real power to help protect our public lands.