Taylor Energy Oil Spill: This Is How Change Happens

Recently a front-page article ran in The Washington Post, describing the ongoing, 14-year-long leak of crude oil from hurricane-damaged wells at the former location of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, operated by a company called Taylor Energy.  The article stated that — based on the latest scientific estimates of the leak rate — the Taylor spill was about to surpass BP’s disastrous 2010 blowout in the Gulf, becoming the world’s worst oil spill.  News outlets around the world pounced on this headline, shining a global spotlight on this egregious chronic leak. Within weeks the US Coast Guard announced they had finally ordered Taylor Energy to fix the leak or face a daily $40,000 fine.  The team at SkyTruth was thrilled when we heard the news: when Taylor finally fixes the leak, this will be a great result for the environment in the Gulf and will send a strong message to the offshore oil industry that we won’t let them walk away from their messes.  And, this is the vindication of eight years of persistent, dogged work by SkyTruth and our partners.

Taylor Energy - Washington Post

Source: The Washington Post, October 21, 2018

How did we achieve this significant victory for the environment and the people of the Gulf Coast?  We….  

  • Built partnerships.  We teamed up with Southwings and Waterkeeper Alliance to form the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.  Gulf-area citizens groups, notably the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Gulf Restoration Network soon joined, giving us the ability to monitor, investigate, and systematically document the Taylor spill from space, from small aircraft, and on the water.  Alerted by our work, researchers from Florida State University conducted their own independent sampling and measurements, bringing a higher level of scientific expertise to the growing public scrutiny of this continuous pollution event.  
  • Worked with journalists to help them understand the significance of this unchecked spill.  Our methodical, transparent, and conservative analysis helped us build a reputation as being a trustworthy source of credible information.  We developed long-running relationships with journalists, particularly Mike Kunzelman at The Associated Press.  Reporters reached out for our comments and expert insights whenever new information or developments in the Taylor saga came to light.  These relationships resulted in dozens of articles in major media markets over the years, helping to maintain public attention and interest, and a steady drumbeat of public criticism.

And finally, an hour-long interview with Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears resulted in an article that triggered Coast Guard action.  Now, of course, we will continue to monitor the Taylor Energy leak to ensure that effective action is taken.  And we’ll let the world know what we see.

This is what it takes, to make positive change happen for the environment.  We’d like to thank the foundations and individuals who have donated to SkyTruth, making it possible for us to dedicate the time and resources to sustaining this watchdog effort over so many years.  We couldn’t have done it without you.

Please help us keep it going.  Donate to SkyTruth today!

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.

Pipeline Failure Cause of Fatal Oil Spill in Indonesia

An oil spill this weekend that caught fire in Balikpapan Bay, Indonesia, claimed the lives of five fishermen.  State authorities initially reported the fire was set intentionally by oil-spill responders in an attempt to burn it off, a claim that was later denied.

The bulk of the slick can be seen escaping the bay in these satellite images.  In this first image, one of Planet’s Dove satellites has captured variations in the thickness of the slick. We can see narrow, dark tendrils of oil surrounded by the lighter sheen and thinner layers of the slick. In places, the edges of the slick appear dark in contrast to the cleaner water as the oil smoothes out the surface by suppressing small wavelets produced by the wind. Even though the thinner layer of oil isn’t directly visible, we can still see the textural effect it has on the water’s surface, reducing the amount of sunglint (glitter) reflecting off the water:

PlanetScope image courtesy of Planet, April 2, 2018.

This often subtle difference in roughness between clean and oiled water is why the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is also an excellent tool for spotting slicks, as we can see in the image below. Radar distinguishes sharply between the smooth, oily water and the wind-rippled, clean water, and can see right through the clouds, giving us a clear view of the extent of the spill. This Sentinel 1 image was taken on April 1, one day before the Planet image, illustrating how the winds and current have moved the slick around:

Sentinel 1 image courtesy of European Space Agency, April 1, 2018. Bright spots in the water are vessels, most at anchor. 

Initially, authorities were zeroed in on a bulk cargo vessel, the Ever Judger, as the source of this spill.  We can understand why — the PlanetScope satellite image from April 2 shows the vessel anchored in Balikpapan Bay almost directly on top of one end of the slick:

Detail from PlanetScope image taken April 2, 2018, showing large red cargo ship near oil slick in Balikpapan Bay. Red dot at south end of ship shows the location of an AIS (Automatic Identification System) signal that was broadcast on April 1 from the bulk carrier Ever Judger. We assume the vessel has been anchored at this location. Image courtesy Planet.  AIS data courtesy ShipView / exactEarth.

But officials from Pertamina, the Indonesian state oil company, have come forward to say the spill was caused by the failure of a pipeline beneath the bay.  This pipe, installed in 1998, carries crude oil from a storage terminal on the west side of the bay to a refinery in Balikpapan.  We’ve looked for maps showing the route of this pipeline and, so far, struck out. Based on examination of the latest high-resolution imagery of the area in Google Earth (from October 2016), and knowing the locations of the terminal and the refinery (thanks to Google Maps), we’ve sketched in our best guess at where this pipeline may be located:

Map showing our best guess at the alignment of the pipeline that failed, resulting in fatal oil spill in Balikpapan Bay.

If anyone has more definitive information on this pipeline, or the precise location of the failure, please share!  Over the next few days we will continue to monitor this incident with satellite imagery, thanks to our friends at Planet and the European Space Agency.

[UPDATE April 5 – Pertamina claims the spill resulted when the Ever Judger dropped anchor without authorization in Balikpapan Bay, dragging and breaking their pipeline.]

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.

Monitoring Update: Oil Rocks In The Caspian Sea

The Oil Rocks (Neft Daşları)  is a massive offshore oil complex in the Caspian Sea. The complex was constructed in the late 1940’s by the Soviet Union and has been producing oil consistently since 1951. The area around the Oil Rocks has experienced catastrophe in the past, when a fire at a nearby platform was responsible for the death of 32 workers and a particularly nasty oil spill in December 2015.

As part of SkyTruth’s Watchdog program, we keep an eye on locations such as this. Over the past 2 months, we estimate that over 380,000 gallons of oil have leaked into the Caspian Sea, based on our assumption that the slicks we are observing are 1 micron (1/1000th of a millimeter) thick.

Above: The European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 radar satellite captured this image on December 9th revealing a 306 square kilometer oil slick surrounding the Oil Rocks complex.

Above: Sentinel 1 collected this image of the Oil Rocks with a much smaller oil slick (23 square kilometers) on December 21, 2017.

Wind speeds in the Caspian Sea were as strong as 35 knots toward the south on December 21st and may have dispersed an additional volume of oil on the water’s surface.

Above: Sentinel 1 imagery from January 7, 2018 reveals the Oil Rocks leaking oil. The slicks cover a total area of 34 square kilometers.

Wind speeds were very low (between 0-15 knots) on January 7th heading southward, allowing the oil to form slicks around the complex.

And on January 13th, they were between 20-30 knots also heading southward. Similar to the image from December 21st, the high wind speeds may have contributed to dispersing the oil.

Above: The most recent Sentinel 1 image collected on January 19, 2018 reveals a massive oil slick emanating from the Oil Rocks complex, covering an area of 1094 square kilometers and containing at least 288,940 gallons of oil.

For context, 50,000 gallons of oil leaked from the SOCAR#10 platform during a fatal fire in 2015 mentioned above. And this massive Azerbaijani complex has a consistent leaky history on satellite imagery. Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, the five countries surrounding the Caspian, all have efforts to tap into the Sea’s 44 billion barrel reserve. But this most recent satellite image from January 19th suggests a troubling future for the environment of the Caspian Sea.

Port Aransas

Oil Spill Off Port Aransas, Texas

Around 4:30 am on October 20, a barge filled with nearly 5-½ million gallons of crude oil exploded off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas. Two crewmen lost their lives, and although the cargo holds reportedly were not breached, the crippled vessel began leaking oil into the Gulf. The U.S. Coast Guard reported a spill roughly two miles long and a quarter mile wide, and response crews were seen setting up oil booms by late afternoon. By the end of the weekend, more than 6,000 feet of containment booms had been placed to protect essential habitat areas along Mustang and North Padre islands.

Port Aransas Spill

Satellite imagery from Planet shows the spill at a resolution of three meters, just two days after the explosion. The spill spread out off Port Aransas and started drifting slowly south toward Mustang Island State Park and Padre Island National Seashore – critical wintering habitat for migratory birds including the red knot and the piping plover, both listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The Coast Guard issued a news release late on October 25 indicating the barge had been moved to shore. Beach cleanup teams continued to work on Mustang and North Padre islands, where more than 70 cubic yards of “oily solids” have been removed. Some shorebirds have been seen with oil on them, but wildlife teams have had difficulty catching and cleaning any of them. If oiled wildlife is rescued, they’re likely to go to the University of Texas Marine Science Institute’s Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) for treatment.

Harvey Spill Tracker

New Citizen Pollution Reporting Tool, Now Available for Hurricanes

We’ve launched the SkyTruth Spill Tracker, a map-based tool to allow citizens on the ground in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean to quickly report oil and hazardous waste spills and other pollution incidents as a result of the storms.  

You can access the Tracker via mobile or desktop browsers at SkyTruthSpillTracker.org, or via the Ushahidi mobile app

Pollution Spill Tracker

Submit your report at SkyTruthSpillTracker.org

We operated a similar tool, the Gulf Oil Spill Tracker, during and after the BP oil spill in the Gulf in 2010.  We also helped the Louisiana Bucket Brigade launch their iWitness Pollution Map. If you’re reporting pollution in Louisiana, you might prefer to use the iWitness map.

How to Submit a Report

Click the + symbol in the upper left corner of the map to report oil, chemical or hazardous waste spills. Follow the prompts to enter a brief description of what you see. If you are able, please upload a photo or video showing the incident and hit submit.

A technology-driven non-profit with a mission to protect the environment by making more of it visible, SkyTruth launched this reporting tool to enable citizens to report environmental pollution as a result of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Read more about related work after the BP oil spill, the Taylor Energy oil spill, and Hurricane Katrina.

We believe if people can easily communicate their needs, organizations and governments can more effectively respond. Federal and state authorities will be able to download the reports in a standard *.csv format, readable by any spreadsheet or database software.

Contact Us

With your help, the SkyTruthSpillTracker should prove to be a useful resource for aiding the response and recovery efforts throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean. We encourage everyone impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to use the tracker. We are also interested in coordinating with other groups organizing similar pollution reporting efforts on the ground. Please email suggestions to us at info@skytruth.org.