Leaving a MARC: Cutting a Swath though Pennsylvania

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Construction work on the MARC 1 pipeline right-of-way in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. Photo by J. Henry Fair, flight by LightHawk.
Fracking is not the only part of oil and gas drilling that has an impact on the landscape and the environment. Case in point: the newly-built MARC 1 pipeline runs for 39 miles through Bradford, Sullivan, and Lycoming counties in northeast Pennsylvania, carrying natural gas produced by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Marcellus Shale. Along the route this pipeline crosses 71 roads, 19 named streams and rivers, many small unnamed creeks, and cuts through a densely forested swath of the beautiful Endless Mountains.
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The MARC 1 pipeline right-of-way crossing a stream in northeast Pennsylvania. 
Photo by J. Henry Fair, flight by LightHawk.

Construction of the pipeline began in the fall of 2012, and we were interested in illustrating construction-related impacts. Finding info on pipeline routes, however, is no simple task. The first map which turned up was a scanned pdf created by Central New York Oil and Gas Company (CNYOG); a deeper dig for a more accurate map turned up the Department of Transportation’s National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS), but unfortunately NPMS data is not available for download. So we decided to create our own map of the pipeline – informed by the CNYOG map, and validated against the NPMS data:

Marc-1_Narrow

The pipeline map was created by tracing the route on aerial and satellite imagery available in Google Earth. Imagery was collected during the pipeline’s construction which helped us do a pre- and post-construction comparison. Road and stream data from the US Census Bureau’s Tiger/Line was used to calculate the number of roads and streams which were intersected by the pipeline. Here is a side-by-side look at a selected site along the pipeline route before and during construction:

MARC 1 pipeline crossing field and forest near Sugar Run, PA. Compare imagery from 2011 and 2012.
Directions to this location.

MARC 1 also traverses Pennsylvania State Game Land for 1.5 miles, with the right-of-way occupying 21 acres of this prime habitat and hunting / recreation area:

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We used the USGS’s 2011 National Land Cover Dataset to assess the area and types of land use impacted by the construction of the pipeline. Overall, construction of the Marc-1 pipeline right-of-way impacted over 400 acres of land, 318 of which were forested (see the exact breakdown of land cover types at right and raw data here).

Now the MARC 1 pipeline is a done deal and some of the impacts will eventually fade into the background, but the corridor through forest and woody wetlands will remain. From air emissions and habitat fragmentation to property rights issues, we need to be careful not to overlook the environmental impact of pipeline building, especially as developers focus their efforts on expanding pipeline capacity to keep up with oversupply of natural gas.

If you want proof of that, look no further than the MARC 2 pipeline. Yes, developers were already proposing a 30-mile MARC 2 pipeline less than two years after the MARC 1 pipeline was completed. Stay alert…

 

MARC 1 crossing field and forest near the Susquehanna River close to Sugar Run, PA. 
Compare imagery from 2011 and 2012. Directions to this location.

 

MARC 1 traversing rural Bradford County, PA near Foster Branch, a tributary of the Susquehanna River. 
Compare imagery from 2011 and 2012. Directions to this location.

Will Taylor Energy Response Offer Any New Answers?

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Undated photo of Taylor Energy Platform #23051 before it was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Image Credit – Taylor Energy
Today, Jan. 20, Taylor Energy will host a public forum in Baton Rouge, La., to explain what efforts they have taken to respond to the ongoing oil spill in Mississippi Canyon Block 20 (MC-20) – the former site of Taylor Energy Platform #23051. Over eleven years ago Hurricane Ivan triggered a subsea landslide which destroyed the platform and buried 28 wells under a hundred or more feet of mud and sediment. The spill first came to public attention during the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, when GMC charter member SkyTruth observed the leak on satellite imagery and began investigating with GMC assets in the air and on the surface.

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Above: Landsat 8 image from June 2014; one many satellite observations SkyTruth has catalogued over the past eleven years. 
 

Oil still leaks from the site to this day, eleven miles off the coast of Louisiana, while the now-idled company’s efforts to stop the leak have remained a carefully guarded secret. In early 2015, an AP investigation pressed the U.S. Coast Guard to increase their estimated spill rate to an amount 20x higher than Taylor had ever acknowledged. In Sept. 2015, GMC partners, including the Waterkeeper Alliance, settled a law suit over the company’s lack of transparency about efforts to fix the leak. This forum was a condition of that settlement.

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium has the following questions for Taylor Energy, which, in one presentation posted in advance to the forum’s website called the events surrounding Hurricane Ivan, an “Act of God“.

1) What is the plan to stop this leak?

2) If the plan is to just let it go for the next 100 years, what research has been done to determine that the environmental harm would be minimal and acceptable? Why wasn’t the public involved in that decision making?

3) What lessons were learned and are they being applied to new permitting and drilling in the Gulf?

  • What do we know about slope stability and the risk of slope failure throughout the Gulf, especially in deepwater; and is that risk being incorporated into engineering and permitting?
  • What is the plan if a similar fate befalls a deepwater platform with 20 high-pressure producing oil wells?
  • What systems are in place to successfully shut in those wells in the event of a slope failure?

4) What is the estimated cost to the public of the lost oil and gas revenue if the decision is made to let the reservoir bleed out?

5) What were the various interventions that were deployed on the seafloor to try to capture the leaking oil and gas? How much oil and gas did they capture, and during what time periods? What was done with the captured oil and gas?

To attend, the public is asked to register.

LOCATION:Louisiana State University
Pennington Biomedical Research Center
Building “G”
6400 Perkins Rd
Baton Rouge, LA 70808 

DATE & TIME:9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
January 20, 2016

Truth Elusive as Oil Slicks Spread in Caspian Sea

Last week we reported that heavy seas and high winds in the Caspian Sea were suspected to be the cause of a fatal accident at the SOCAR #10 Platform in the Caspian Sea. The platform is operated by SOCAR, the Azerbaijani state oil company, and is located in the Gunashli oil field approximately 65 miles ESE of Baku, Azerbaijan. Based on two radar satellite images collected since the fire began on December 4, we estimate that least 95,000 gallons of oil have been spilled into the Caspian Sea.

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Above: The most recent image of the Gunashli oilfield reveals a 357 square kilometer oil slick. The image was collected on Dec. 13 by Sentinel 1A,, a radar satellite operated by the European Space Agency (ESA).


The slick has moved to the north since the first satellite image was collected on Dec. 7. After analyzing that first image, we identified a 192 sq. km oil slick, which we estimated contained 50,000 gallons of oilLooking at low-resolution daily imagery from NASA, we last saw a major smoke plume from the site on Dec. 8, but continued to see a heat signature on the 7-2-1 band imagery from Dec. 12 and Dec. 15. The site has been obscured by clouds from Dec. 15 to the present.    

News from Azerbaijan is, at best, hard to come by; at worst, downright contradictory. Since the disaster SOCAR has only issued two press releases on the subject in English, the most recent of which from Dec. 11 emphatically states that, “During the monitoring no signs of oil spills have been observed at the accident area.” On Dec. 16th (or 17th, the timestamps don’t match up), SOCAR has issued a press release in Azeri, and while we aren’t fluent in Azeri, regional media reports confirm that SOCAR is sticking to their story

 
Even more intriguing are seemingly conflicting reports from local news website Ozu.az. The Russian language version of the article appears to accurately report the 300+ sq. km oil spill observed by Sentinel 1A, including a wide-frame satellite image of the smoke plume. Meanwhile the Azeri language version of the article, posted a mere 41 minutes after the Russian version went up, seems to be largely copied-and-pasted from the SOCAR press release, contains no image of the spill site, and does not appear to mention anything about Sentinel 1A or the 300 sq. km. oil spill. 
 

Again, we’re not fluent or even conversant in Azeri (and only partially in Russian), so please check out the articles side-by-side and let us know what you think in the comments. 

One thing is certain, the storm which caused this disaster was certainly a major weather event. Satellite-based sea-surface scatterometry shows the winds on Dec. 4th exceeded 40 knots (46 MPH) in the Gunashli oilfield. 

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Combined with the relatively shallow depth of the oilfield (100-400 meters), it is not a surprise that this storm kicked up massive waves. Nearby, at the aging offshore settlement of Neft Daşları (the “Oil Rocks”), three workers were killed in a separate accident on the very same day (Dec. 4) when their living quarters “fell into the sea” (see also press release from SOCAR). The search continues for workers from Platform #10 who are still missing after their lifeboat was reported to have prematurely dropped from the burning platform into the raging sea.

We will continue to track this story and available satellite imagery.

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Word Games Continue: Just What Evidence Did EPA Not Find?

UPDATED – Dec. 2, 2016: Documents obtained by journalists at Marketplace and APM Reports found that officials made eleventh-hour edits to downplay the risks of fracking. Earlier this year the EPA Science Advisory Board also criticized these top-level conclusions and called on the EPA substantiate their claims or consider revising the report. Also, replaced broken link to EPA press release. 

Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a series of draft reports on their findings from five years of research and literature review on the question of whether or not fracking contaminates groundwater. But if you just read the headlines you might have been confused about
what the EPA had actually concluded. As Forbes pointed out, the headlines were a bit contradictory. 

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But the bigger news is that even EPA was inconsistent about the findings of their own report. The press release from EPA states that their assessment (emphasis added): 

“…shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”

 
However, the Executive Summary of the report puts things differently (emphasis added):
 
We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. 

These two statements may look similar, but there is a big difference between saying that you did not find find any evidence of a crime and definitely claiming that you have proven the suspect’s innocence. But try telling the House Natural Resources Committee that fracking has never been proven NOT to cause contamination, and members of Congress will laugh aloud and joke about pigs not flying to Mars. Seriously (check out 1:12:10).

But buried on page 22 of the 28-page executive summary, the EPA goes on to say (again, emphasis added):

This assessment used available data and literature to examine the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing from oil and gas on drinking water resources nationally. As part of this effort, we identified data limitations and uncertainties associated with current information on hydraulic fracturing and its potential to affect drinking water resources. In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty.

So in short, the EPA didn’t find proof of wide-spread contamination from fracking, but they lack the data to say with any certainly whether that means anything at all. At least they acknowledged that they found “specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.” Which is actually big news coming from an agency which had previously stopped short of such a conclusion. 

Unfortunately, this contradiction between headlines from the EPA PR office and the finely-nuanced findings of the EPA scientists just underscores a point we made by in 2013. Word games are still misleading the American public about frackingand “…[w]hile cases of contamination caused by fracking remain obscured by lack of information and tricky linguistics, we know that a growing number of citizens are reporting harm and environmental contamination in unconventional oil and gas fields, and especially from wells that have been fracked.”

Bigfoot Suffers Damaged Tendons…

No, not the hairy cryptid with large feet and reclusive temperament, but rather Chevron’s massive extended tension-leg platform (TLP) in the Gulf of Mexico which was expected to go into production later this year and produce up to 75,000 barrels of oil per day. The massive project hit a setback late last month when 6 of the 16 “tendons” designed to anchor the platform to the sea floor sank in approximately 5,200 feet of water. The Bigfoot platform is reportedly being towed to more secure waters while this incident is investigated. 

We took a look at satellite AIS and does appear the rig has returned slightly shallower water. Not exactly sure why they took such a long trip down south around May 11, but we do know they have been contending with a strong Gulf Loop Current this year, which also delayed operations.                                    AIS data copyright – exactEarth/ShipView.

The reports also state that the Bigfoot platform was not connected to any wells and no fluids were released, which sounds plausible given our understanding of the process of installing a TLP. But how exactly does an TLP work? Well according to Rigzone.com:

While a buoyant hull supports the platform’s topsides, an intricate mooring system keeps the TLP in place. The buoyancy of the facility’s hull offsets the weight of the platform, requiring clusters of tight tendons, or tension legs, to secure the structure to the foundation on the seabed. The foundation is then kept stationary by piles driven into the seabed. The tension leg mooring system allows for horizontal movement with wave disturbances, but does not permit vertical, or bobbing, movement, which makes TLPs a popular choice for stability, such as in the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico. 

If that is a little too technical, check out this promo video from a company that does these installations. In particular, fast-forward to 3:48 and you can see how the tendons have “tendon support buoys” to keep them afloat until they are attached to the structure and the platform is cranked down into the water to hold it in place.

 


The fact that something went wrong with the flotation of multiple tendons before the platform was even put into production is a reminder that things can always go wrong, and when it comes to deepwater oil drilling, the stakes are very, very high. Chevron has admitted that this setback will make it impossible to reach their goal of starting production by the end of 2015. 

 
Meanwhile, Shell’s Polar Pioneer remains in Seattle, Washington, gearing up for a summer attempt at drilling in the Arctic despite the protests of ‘kayaktavists’ blockading the massive offshore rig. We would like to think that industry would have to prove they can drill for oil without incident in the relatively placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico before they forge ahead into new territory like the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf and the harsh but pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean, but in the absence of such policies SkyTruth will just have to continue keeping a close eye on the Gulf, Arctic, Eastern Seaboard, and all the other places being considered or opened up for offshore exploration and production.

Oily globs close SoCal beaches – Where did they come from?

Yesterday afternoon oily globs from an unknown source began washing ashore in Southern California, prompting officials to close Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach. Reports saytar-like globs ranging from the size of golf balls to footballs began washing ashore along a six-mile stretch of coastline.” The U.S. Coast Guard has yet to identify a source, but did confirm the material was a petroleum-based product. Last week a pipeline spill of over 100,000 gallons of crude oil west of Santa Barbara dominated the headlines, so there has been some speculation that this oil came from that spill. However, thanks to satellite imagery, we believe we have found a more likely source. 

Santa_Monica_Annotated



This image was collected at 6:52 am PDT on May 26 by Sentinel 1A, a radar satellite operated by the European Space Agency. Lifeguards at Manhattan Beach first reported the “tar-balls” washing ashore around 12:30 pm PDT, approximately 30 hours later. The image appears to show an oily slick only six miles west of Manhattan Beach and covering approximately 1,000 acres of Santa Monica Bay.    

Sometimes we see bilge dumps from passing vessels (like this 90-mile spill off the coast of Angola), but this slick doesn’t appear to have any vessel associated with it and it isn’t the right shape. So we started looking for any infrastructure around Santa Monica that could be the source of this pollution event. That is when we found this map of the five-mile sewage outfall from the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment plant at Playa del Ray. Take a look at what the outfall pipe looks like on the bathymetry layer in Google Earth. 

Hyperion_Outfall_GE


To see if this pipe might have anything to do with our suspected oil slick we digitized the outline of the Hyperion 5-Mile Outfall and brought that into QGIS to lay on top of the imagery from Sentinel 1A.

Santa_Monica_Sentinel_w_Hyperion

 

The southern diffuser leg of the Hyperion 5-Mile Outfall is less than 900 meters from the northern edge of the suspected oil slick.

Given how close the slick is to the Hyperion 5-Mile Outfall, we believe this could be a source for the contaminants washing up on Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo Beaches. It is not impossible that tarballs from the pipeline spill at Refugio Beach State Park travelled over 100 miles to wash up en mass on these beaches, but it seems less likely than a discharge of some kind from the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment plant. 

Furthermore, we found more evidence which supports the notion that waste from the outfalls could reach shore given the right conditions. Back in 2006 the City of Los Angeles shut down Hyperion’s 5-mile outfall for inspection, diverting the wastewater to the shorter 1-mile outfall. Scientists at the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS) tracked the waste from the shorter outflow pipe and modeled the behavior of the plume. Bear in mind that the animation below shows the behavior of a pollution plume back in Winter 2006 from a point-source four miles closer to shore, but you can see how it is possible that waste from the outfalls could turn toward shore and contaminate the beaches.

 
mbppts_ani_latest
See more about the Hyperion outfalls at the SCCOOS website, and let us know if you have any additional information about this pollution event or the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Taylor Energy Site – Leaking Oil Continuously Since 2004

It’s been a while since we posted on the chronic oil leak from the Taylor Energy site just off the tip of the Mississippi Delta in the Gulf of Mexico.  Sad to say, nothing has changed: oil is continuing to flow unabated, as shown by the 13-mile-long slick in this Landsat-7 satellite image that was taken Wednesday morning:

Detail from Landsat-7 satellite image acquired January 7, 2015, showing 13-mile-long slick apparently emanating from Taylor Energy site. (Black lines at left and right sides of the image are data gaps caused by 2003 failure of the scan-line corrector on the Enhanced Thematic Mapper sensor.) 
Same image as above, without annotation. Slick is visible as faint dark streak on this unenhanced true-color image.
In case the slick is too hard to see, here is a 3-2-1 contrast-enhanced image. The colors are bit odd because of high-cirrus clouds, scan-lines, and the enhancement process. 

As far as we can determine, there is no plan by the responsible party, the oil and gas industry, the US Coast Guard or the EPA to permanently fix this leak and stop this ongoing pollution of public waters. 

This is not a big leak: it seems to be somewhat larger than the most productive natural oil seeps that are scattered in deep water throughout the central and western Gulf. So maybe “no action” is a practical decision to make.  But shouldn’t the public get to participate in making that decision?