Routine Gulf Monitoring – Here’s Why We Need It

UPDATE 6/8/10 9am – check out video from an aerial overflight of the apparent oil leak next to the Ocean Saratoga semisubmersible drill rig, working ten miles offshore in Mississippi Canyon Block 20. We’re still trying to determine if this is the potential leak that we identified on satellite imagery as possibly coming from Platform 23051, or if this is yet another apparent oil leak in the same vicinity.

NOAA actually mentions the oil leak near the Saratoga in this map published back on April 30. The Mobile Register wrote about this yesterday.

UPDATE 6/8/10 3:30pm – This blogger uses some interesting language, but reports that the Ocean Saratoga is working to plug a well that had been damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. No explanation why there would be oil in the water as a result of this plugging operation. This also doesn’t explain the possible leak we see on multiple satellite images of Platform 23051.

UPDATE 6/9/10 7:15pm – Some media reports are misrepresenting SkyTruth’s work: we never claimed the Ocean Saratoga was leaking oil; our satellite image analysis indicates a possible persistent leak at or near Platform 23051, which is in the same general vicinity in the Gulf. These are two separate structures – one is a mobile drilling unit (MODU), the other is a fixed platform.

Three days ago we blogged about a possible small, but persistent, leak from offshore oil platform #23051 in the Gulf of Mexico, not far from the ongoing Deepwater Horizon spill. We asked for confirmation from anyone who might happen to be in the vicinity. Ask, and ye shall receive:

Photograph taken 6/5/10 of apparent oil leak in the vicinity of Platform 23051, courtesy J Henry Fair. Semisubmersible drill rig in foreground; workboat at left where the plume originates at the surface. Note a second plume apparently originating from platform in the background at upper right; this may be Platform 23051 (not yet confirmed).

Professional photographer J Henry Fair flew over the site yesterday using the MMS platform location in our blog post, and took photos of what he found. Here are the two he sent us today. There is an obvious plume of oil in the water next to a semisubmersible drill rig. J Henry identified it as the Ocean Saratoga rig (nice picture here), owned by Diamond Offshore.

The May 17 rig status report available on Diamond Offshore’s website (which prominently features a photograph of Senator Mary Landrieu, with the caption “Credit where credit is due”) shows the Ocean Saratoga is currently under contract to drill for the same company that owns and operates Platform 23051. The platform may be the one visible in the background of the photo above, apparently trailing another oily-looking plume. So it’s possible that we’ve actually discovered two separate leaks or spills in the same vicinity.

A closer look at the semisubmersible rig, work boat, and apparent plume of oil near the location of Platform 23051 in the Gulf of Mexico, taken June 5, 2010. Photo courtesy J Henry Fair.

J Henry described the workboat at the end of the oil plume as “churning the oil” as if to disperse it more quickly. It’s unclear from these pictures if the workboat is itself the source of this oil plume, or if indeed it’s motoring around where an oil plume is emerging at the ocean surface in an attempt to break it up. In any event, this spill is certainly large enough to require reporting to the Coast Guard.

Other than us – is anybody watching what’s going on out there?

This is why we think America needs publicly transparent, routine satellite monitoring wherever we allow offshore oil and gas drilling.

Possible Leak From Platform 23051

As we wrote yesterday, SkyTruth may have discovered a small but persistent leak or oily discharge from Platform #23051 in the Gulf of Mexico, unrelated to the ongoing BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We see a small slick apparently emanating from the platform location on multiple satellite images taken since April 25, including yesterday’s Envisat ASAR radar image.

According to MMS data, the platform is located at 28.938022 degrees North latitude, 88.970963 degrees West longitude. That’s about 12 miles east-southeast of the tip of the South Pass outlet channel of the Mississippi River.

If anyone happens to be in the vicinity of this platform it would be great to get some observations, photos and/or video to document this possible leak or discharge.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill – Landfall in Alabama?

MODIS images today were too cloudy to be useful, but an excellent radar satellite image was taken today of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This image, taken from the Envisat satellite using the ASAR radar sensor, shows oil apparently making landfall in Alabama on the east side of Mobile Bay, in the Fort Morgan – Gulf Shores area. An article on the Washington Post website today seems to confirm what we’re seeing on the image:

Envisat ASAR satellite radar image, June 3, 2010. Image courtesy CSTARS.

Oil slicks and sheen spread across a total area of about 11,505 square miles (29,796 km2) on this image, which doesn’t extend very far west of the Mississippi Delta, and doesn’t cover the approach to Florida Straits where we saw possible indications of oil on May 27.

Dr. Ian MacDonald and Dr. Oscar Garcia-Pineda at Florida State University have also been systematically analyzing the radar images of this spill. The animated graphic below shows a detailed look at the northeastern portion of the oil slick as it moves eastward off the Alabama coast and the Florida Panhandle on May 31, June 1 and June 3:

Animation showing oil slicks moving eastward along the Alabama and Florida coasts. Image courtesy Florida State University / MacDonald Image Lab. Click on image to view animation.

And here is a heartbreaking look at what this oil is doing to wildlife now. Warning, these photos are very disturbing and sad.

Gulf of Mexico – Time To Get Serious About Routine Satellite Monitoring

The ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill has provided a rare scientific opportunity: for the first time, multiple satellite remote-sensing systems, from visible to infrared to radar, are providing daily images of a large area in the Gulf of Mexico. This systematic imaging is proving useful for measuring the size and location of oil slicks and sheen, and for estimating the rate of leakage from BP’s failed Macondo well.

It’s also demonstrating another important ability — here at SkyTruth we think we’ve discovered a small but possibly chronic leak from an oil platform located a few miles off the Mississippi Delta, unrelated to but not far from BP’s leaking well:

Time-series of images showing possible small leak from Platform 23051

We first mentioned this back on May 15. According to GIS data from the Minerals Management Service showing the locations of all fixed oil and gas platforms in the Gulf, the platform that appears to be leaking is identified by Complex ID # 23051. You can look up more info at the MMS website. According to MMS this platform was installed in 1984, and it is manned 24/7 (most platforms in the Gulf are unmanned). The sequence of satellite images above shows what appears to be a small oily slick emanating from the platform location on multiple dates, captured by several different satellite imaging systems. We’ve observed the slick on Envisat MERIS and ASAR images taken on April 25 and 26, and May 12, 18 and 31; on RADARSAT images taken May 8 and 11; and on COSMO-SkyMed images taken May 11, 14 and 15. (Pet Peeve Alert: These are all foreign satellites, operated by Germany, Italy, Canada. Radar imagery is the go-to tool for detecting and monitoring oil slicks, yet the U.S. does not operate a single civilian radar satellite. Instead, we’ve been buying radar images of this disaster from other nations. This is nuts.)

On May 27 a scientist from the University of West Florida was flying over the Gulf to investigate the BP oil spill, and noticed an obvious discharge plume coming from a rig – here is one of the pictures she took during that flight:

Discharge plume from rig in Gulf of Mexico, May 27, 2010. Photo by Dr. Enid Sisskin and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

This appears to be a small jackup drill rig actively drilling in relatively shallow water. The brown plume looks like it could be drilling mud. But along with the apparent oily leak from 23051 this discharge raises a few questions:

  • How much chronic, day-to-day pollution is associated with offshore drilling?
  • Who is doing the necessary oversight to minimize this pollution?
  • How effective is this oversight?
  • As our vast offshore infrastructure of platforms and pipelines ages, can we effectively identify small chronic problems before they turn into big problems?

All of these questions point to a readily available technical tool that can contribute, right now, to providing some answers: regular monitoring of the Gulf using satellite images from a variety of remote-sensing systems. If the U.S. had such a program we could systematically assess how common smaller pollution events are, and immediately respond in the event of sudden pollution emergencies like the ongoing BP spill, recent pipeline leaks, the offshore and coastal spills that resulted from hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike, and other time-critical incidents.

Much of the hardware and trained personnel that could implement a Gulf-wide monitoring system already exists, at the CSTARS facility housed at the University of Miami. CSTARS has their own satellite dishes and image-processing capability. They’ve been producing gigabytes of satellite imagery since the BP spill began on April 20. But CSTARS only gets activated for this work during emergencies. Maybe it’s time to extend that mission and conduct regular, routine, continuous monitoring so we can get a more complete picture of how well our nation’s publicly owned waters and offshore resources are being managed.

BP / Gulf Oil Spill – Moving Toward Florida Straits (??)

We just finished analyzing the MODIS / Aqua satellite image shot the afternoon of May 27. It again clearly shows the main body of the oil slick (solid orange line) around the site of the leaking Macondo well, and also shows deep entrainment in the Loop Current. Disturbingly, we see signs of thin surfactant – possibly oil from this spill – in the Loop Current where it moves past the Dry Tortugas and toward the Florida Straits (dashed orange line):

MODIS / Aqua satellite image, May 27, 2010

There are natural processes that generate thin layers of oily surfactant, so this does not necessarily show that oil from the spill is moving into the Straits yet. But the spill has clearly been interacting with the Loop current since May 17, and at a speed of 1 to 2 knots (see below), ten days is enough time for some of that oil to have moved 240 to 480 nautical miles (276-552 miles). Although it’s 510 miles as the crow flies from the leaking well site to Florida Straits, the convoluted path taken by the Loop Current adds up to a total distance of about 900 miles, so we may not be there yet. Consider this a possibility, not a definitive conclusion.

Systematic water sampling in the eastern Gulf sure would be helpful to pin this down – is anyone doing that?

Sea-Surface Velocity (SSV) map derived from satellite radar altimeter data, May 27, 2010. Location of the Loop Current is indicated by green to red band of relatively high velocity at the ocean surface. Source: Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research.

BP is currently trying out the “top kill” procedure to plug the leaking well. The success of this attempt is still uncertain, but at least the blowout preventer appears to be hanging together under the increased strain. Live video feed shows what appears to be a strong plume of oil and drilling mud coming from one of the leaks in the busted-up riser pipe. Keep your fingers crossed – this really needs to work.