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.

The Search for Sanchi

On January 6th, a tanker named the Sanchi collided with a cargo ship called the CF Crystal in the East China Sea causing a fire which killed nearly all of the crew and eventually sank the Sanchi. While the CF Crystal (which survived the collision) was only carrying grain, the Sanchi was carrying natural-gas condensate. This ultra-light oil is highly flammable which no doubt contributed to the blaze that prevented any rescue of the crew. Though there was originally hope it would evaporate quickly, there have been reports of it approaching the Japanese coastline. More persistent heavy bunker oil from the ship’s fuel tanks might also be leaking, compounding the problem.

Usually, we use radar imagery collected by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 satellite to track and monitor oil slicks, but, in this case, the area is not completely covered by Sentinel 1, and what imagery we have seen has been washed out by strong winds that make it difficult to see slicks. We’ve been relying on multispectral imagery from Sentinel 2, but heavy cloud cover in the area has made it difficult to locate the slick and monitor the cleanup and salvage operations.

These Sentinel 2 images do not show the slick as clearly as radar images would. Because we are working in the visible spectrum, we can only see a faint difference between the ocean and the lighter-than-usual slick. We’ve done our best to boost the contrast to highlight the slick, so the color of the water might seem a little brighter than usual.

Sentinel 2 image taken on January 18, showing vessels and slick around site of Sanchi wreck. We inferred the location of Sanchi based on the movements of response vessels, reconstructed from their AIS tracking broadcasts.

We can see two vessels which appear to be either spraying chemicals to disperse the slick or deploying oil-skimming gear, from booms extending from either side, as shown in this zoomed image:

Closeup view of the previous image, showing cleanup vessel in greater detail.

This Planet image, also taken on January 18, showing part of a larger area of slick east of the Sanchi.

Thanks to Planet and their fleet of Dove satellites, we can see that the slick extends further to the east. We are also able to see the vessels in more detail:

This collection of close-up shows views of oil spill response vessels in the area from the previous image.

We have been following the ships in the area via their Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts, and have seen a variety of Chinese and Japanese vessels come and go, including the Koyo Maru and Koshiki, Japanese patrol boats; the Dong Lei 6, a cleanup tanker; the Shen Qian Hao, a Chinese diving vessel; the Hai Xun 01, a Chinese Patrol Boat; and the Dong Hai Jiu 101, a Chinese Search and Rescue boat.  Based on the movements of these vessels, we’ve inferred the location where the Sanchi likely sank and is the source of this ongoing spill.

We are doing our best to monitor this area as the clean-up continues.