Oil Spill in the Persian Gulf

On March 14th we began investigating a report of suspected bilge dumping off the coast of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.

While we were unable to uncover any imagery of bilge dumping there, we did find some evidence of what appears to be a significant, ongoing oil spill in the Persian Gulf off the west coast of UAE. Based on patterns formed by what appear to be oil slicks, the spill appears to be originating as a leak emanating from a fixed point on the seafloor, such as a well or pipeline. Vessel tracking data indicated the presence of a jack-up drill rig near the suspected origin of the spill, and this suggests that something went wrong either in the course of drilling a new well, or during the workover of an existing well.

Vessel-tracking data from exactEarth, showing cluster of vessels (within the gray triangle) near suspected source of what appears to be a major oil spill in the Persian Gulf. One of these vessels, the Pasargad 100, is also known as the Liao He 300, an Iranian-flagged jackup drill rig.

The spill is visible on radar and optical satellite imagery from multiple dates, and the presence of multiple distinct patches of slick indicate that the spill may be occurring in pulses. Based on the total area which is covered by slicks we conservatively estimate that 88,241 gallons of oil are visible on this Sentinel 1 radar image taken March 8th:

This image, collected by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 satellite on March 8th, shows multiple slicks covering 128 square miles (334 square kilometers). Bright spots are vessels and platforms.

163,876 gallons are visible on the March 11 radar image:

This image, collected by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 satellite on March 11th, shows an oil slick covering 239 square miles (620 square kilometers).

Our estimates are based on the assumption that, on average, the slicks we’re observing on satellite imagery are at least 1 micron (one one-millionth of a meter) thick. That means every square kilometer of slick hold 264 gallons of oil. We consider this a conservative assumption.

Landsat-8 satellite imagery from March 7, just one day before the first Sentinel radar image, doesn’t show anything unusual in this area, which suggests a sudden catastrophic spill. A Landsat-8 image from March 14 is partially obscured by haze but does appear to confirm the presence of a very large oil slick.

We will continue to monitor this site to determine if this is a continuing spill.

Rampal Coal-Fired Power Plant Threatens Sundarbans

The Sundarbans: a near-mythic landscape of forest and swamp, byzantine river channels and tidal mud flats, one of the last strongholds of the highly endangered Bengal tiger.  Straddling the border separating India and Bangladesh, this impenetrable wilderness spans the mouths of the Ganges River as its broad delta meets the stormy Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.  This is one of the special places on earth that is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  That’s why concern is mounting over the construction of a new coal-fired power plant just upstream in Bangladesh, near the town of Rampal. One of the world’s poorest countries, Bangladesh needs stable sources of electricity to improve the general standard of living. But the location of this power plant is problematic. It’s being built along the bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges, one of the world’s biggest rivers, prone to regular flooding.  It is essentially at sea level, in a region routinely thrashed by strong tropical cyclones that push massive storm surges up those channels and far inland.  As global warming pushes up sea level, and is predicted to make tropical storms more intense, these problems will only get worse. (Irony alert: much of the global warming that imperils low-lying island nations and coastal nations like Bangladesh is a due to CO2 emissions from… coal-fired power plants.)

UNESCO spells out the risks to the Sundarbans in this report. Air pollution and fly-ash deposition downwind will impact the mangrove forests and alter the chemistry of surface waters; onsite storage of coal-ash in such a flood prone area poses a significant risk of water contamination (as we’ve seen here in the US, with a massive coal-ash spill in Tennessee and currently ongoing spills caused by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Matthew); and the transport of coal by large cargo ships increases the possibility of large oil spills, as we observed when two ships collided in the Sundarbans in December 2014.

We thought we would take a look at the Rampal power plant site using Google Earth to show what’s happening as the construction progresses:

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Location of the Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh, currently under construction. The remaining intact mangrove forests of The Sundarbans are dark green.

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A closer look at the Rampal power plant site, on the eastern bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges River.

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Detail view of the Rampal site as it appeared in 2001, prior to any construction activity.  See time-series of matching views below.

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Rampal site in November 2010, prior to construction activity. Note that most of the area is flooded.

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Rampal site in April 2013. Construction activity is underway. Fill material (light brown) is being used to build up the site.

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Rampal site, March 2016. Fill material has been added to elevate and level the site, and levees (?) (bright strips?) are apparently being added along the perimeter.

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Rampal site, March 2016. The site footprint now covers an area of 520 acres (nearly one square mile).

 

Impact Story: Chevron Spill May Have Reset the Tone for Oil Boom in Brazil

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2011 turned out to be both a banner year for Brazilian oil exploration and a big eye-opener for the people of Brazil. Fueled by the discovery of 19 new oil and gas reserves and hungry for the spoils, big multi-national companies poured billions of new investment dollars into the South American nation.

Most Brazilians expressed little concern over the potential safety risks of the offshore boom. But then SkyTruth president John Amos noticed an inconspicuous report of a seemingly insignificant oil leak buried in the daily cycle of business news.

On November 8, 2011, Reuters reported that Brazil’s oil regulator, the National Petroleum Agency (ANP), was investigating an offshore oil leak near Chevron’s Frade field, 230 miles from the coast of Rio de Janeiro. According to the report, Chevron was checking to see if oil was leaking from a crack in the seafloor.

When John reviewed satellite photos of the area, he saw a slick originating near an exploratory drilling site that extended for 35 miles and covered about 180 square kilometers. By his estimates the sheen on the water represented about 47,000 gallons of oil.

Three days later it had grown to 56 miles in length, and Chevron had declared it a natural seep unrelated to their drilling activities. “It is possible, but call us skeptical,” John posted on our blog. “From my previous years working as an exploration geologist I know there are natural seeps off Brazil. But I’ve never seen a natural seep create a slick this large on a satellite image.” What’s more, comparisons with historical satellite photos showed the slick had not been there before.

Over the following days we watched the spread of oil on the water’s surface. While Chevron maintained that it was natural and estimated a leak rate of 8,400 to 13,860 gallons (200 -330 barrels) per day, John posted satellite images that hinted at a much bigger problem. By his analysis the spill was leaking 157,000 gallons (3,700 barrels) per day. That was more than ten times the official estimate.

John’s reports and the indisputable images he posted gained international media attention,  spurred a vigorous discussion on our site, and led to a public outcry in Brazil.

Unable to hide the true nature of the spill, Chevron came under scrutiny from Brazilian legislators and state agencies, and the tone of their official story began to shift.

Under pressure for more transparency, the oil and gas giant eventually conceded they had lost control of a well. They claimed the pressure of the reservoir had exceeded their expectations and forced oil up through fissures in the seafloor.

Kerick Leite who was working for ANP in offshore inspections at the time reflects on the situation this way: “In my opinion, if were not for SkyTruth’s independent assessment of the spill existence and size, I believe the Chevron Spill would have been dismissed as a minor one,” says Leite, “maybe even a natural seep, as initially reported, and remain mostly unknown by the public even today.”

According to the New York Times, Brazil’s former environment minister, Marina Silva, said “This event is a three-dimensional alert to the problems that may occur.” She told the Times that the spill served as a warning just as Brazil was preparing to expand its oil production and exploit its tremendously rich presalt reserves—an extremely complicated process because the presalt lies in 10,000 feet of water beneath thick layers of sand, salt and rock.

As a result of the spill and Chevron’s misleading response, the ANP banned the company from all drilling activities in Brazil onshore and off, pending a full investigation. After lengthy court battles, the company ended up paying  24 violations, and the company paying $17 million in fines to the ANP, more than $18 million to the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, and $42 million to settle civil lawsuits.

What’s more, it emphasized how small the playing field is in the deepwater oil and gas drilling industry. As we learned through our Twitter followers, the drilling contractor on the job had been Transocean—the same company involved in the disastrous BP / Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico just a year earlier. Brazil dodged a bullet with this accident, but the new understanding of how bad it might have been made Brazilians pay attention.

“It was a wake-up call,” said John. “These are multi-national organizations. The same contractors are working for most of the major name-brand oil companies. This kind of thing can happen anywhere.” Chevron’s reluctance to claim culpability and their delayed response to the spill drove home the need for diligence in regulation and enforcement by Brazilian authorities.

Leite said the spill has led to increased public awareness and concern over safety in the oil and gas industry in Brazil that persists today. “I believe the issue of offshore safety now has more priority than before the chevron spill,” he says. “Back when I still worked at the ANP sector dedicated to environmental issues and operational safety, it had around 16 to 18 servants. Today there are around 40 servants dedicated to it.”

It was a full year before Chevron was allowed to resume doing business Brazil. During that time, a significant portion of the company’s global investments remained inaccessible to them. We hope the loss of profits, over and above the fines levied by Brazilian authorities, will provide incentives for Chevron to do a better job and will send a message to other oil and gas companies. Accidents can no longer be hidden or brushed aside. Chevron’s Frade field spill demonstrated that a satellite image can be worth a thousand words — and in this case, millions of dollars.

 

[Updated] Bangladesh – Oil Spill in the Sundarbans National Park

Updated Dec 16, 2014 at 6:00 PM with new information on the location of the Southern Star 7, as well as new and updated satellite images.

Posted Dec. 15, 2014 at 11:00 PM: On the morning of Dec. 9, 2014, a tanker carrying heavy furnace oil to a powerplant in Bangladesh was struck in the fog by a cargo vessel and partially sank, releasing thousands of gallons of oil into the Sundarbans, the world’s largest continuous mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This tidal river delta, already threatened by climate change, is home to incredible biodiversity including rare Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins and what is believed to be one of the largest populations of the very endangered Bengal Tiger

From The Guardian: A Bangladeshi oil-tanker lies half-submerged after it was hit by a cargo vessel on the Shela River in the Sundarbans. The oil spill is threatening rare Irrawaddy and Ganges dolphins as well as Bengal tigers that live in the region. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Details, including the exact location* of the incident, remain vague, even though nearly a week has passed since the accident. The Times of India reports that while the accident occurred in a commonly travelled shipping lane, the collision occurred within one of the Sundarban’s three dolphin reserves. 

*SkyTruth has now received the coordinates of the incident from representatives on the ground. See below.

The “Southern Star 7” was carrying somewhere between 66,000 and 92,000 gallons (250,000-350,000) of furnace oil, but how much was actually spilled into the river remains unknown.

 
From The Guardian: Oil from a Bangladeshi oil-tanker is seen on the [Shella] River in the Sundarbans in Mongla. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Residents have been seen collecting the oil by hand and with buckets to sell for a small reward to the state run Padma Oil company, while fishermen attempt to use their nets to contain the spill. Regional officials just announced they are hiring 100 boats and 200 workers to expand the clean-up effort. These tedious and messy clean up methods are a stark reminder that even after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989, the Ixtoc 1 spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, and even the Santa Barbara Oil Spill off California all the way back in 1969, we haven’t really made any major improvements in how we clean up spilled oil. 

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SkyTruth has been monitoring satellite images of Sundarbans National Park, and we believe we can see evidence of the oil on imagery from the European Space Agency’s new radar satellite: Sentinel 1 – A.


Radar satellite image, acquired December 12, shows black ribbons that may be some of the oil spilled in this disaster. The bright white spots are ships or other large metal objects with strong radar reflectance. The coordinates of the Southern Star 7 were provided by a first-responder on the ground in Bangladesh.

Image Credit – Sentinel 1-A (ESA); Acquired Dec. 12, 2014

According to sources on the ground, the Southern Star 7 sank into the river at 22°21’14.33″ N, 89°40’17.66″ E, about four kilometers from the confluence with the Passhur River. On December 12th it was lifted from the river floor and moved up to the riverbank to 22°22’1.44″ N, 89°38’30.91″ E

Because this region is a tidal river delta, water sloshes in and out of the mangrove forest twice a day. There are reports that the oil is continuing to spread up and down the river, and throughout the canals and channels that crisscross the region. On radar satellite imagery, we have observed what appears to be ropy strands of oil along 30 miles of the Passur River. 

Here are some more images of the area as seen by Sentinel 1 – A and Landsat 8…


The same area, as seen by the panchromatic band of Landsat 8 on Dec. 10, the day after the spill. We don’t see any obvious slicks around the confluence of the Passur River (the main channel in the center) or the Shella River (Smaller offshoot to the east, obscured by clouds), but there appear to be a few ropy slicks downstream from the spill. At 15 meters, the panchromatic band (B8) is the highest resolution we can get with Landsat 8. 
 
Image Credit – Landsat 8 (NASA/USGS); Acquired Dec. 10, 2014
 
Here is the detail on those ships moored in the Passur River, with the black discoloration in the water more apparent as we zoom in. 

Image Credit – Landsat 8 (NASA/USGS); Acquired Dec. 10, 2014

 

Zooming back out with Sentinel 1 – A to the wide-angle view, here is an overview of the impacted area. Not all of the black in the river is oil. Calm waters near shore can also appear darker than open water stirred up by the wind. However, where there are narrow strands of darker material, we believe this may very well be some of the oil threatening this incredibly diverse ecosystem. 

Image Credit – Sentinel 1-A (ESA); Acquired Dec. 12, 2014

To download these images for yourself, visit EarthExplorer for the latest Landsat, and create an account at the Sentinel Scientific Data Hub

Oil Slicks off Mumbai, India

[UPDATE October 9, 2013 – This news article indicates the reported pipeline spill actually occurred on the coast, not offshore. So now we’re not sure what was the source of the extensive slicks on the MODIS satellite images.]

This morning we saw a brief news report noting that Indian authorities reported a “small” oil spill from an offshore pipeline off the coast of Mumbai.  This pipe carries oil ashore from one of India’s largest producing oil fields, the Mumbai (Bombay) High field.  It’s not the first time this pipeline has had problems.

This MODIS/Terra satellite image taken on October 8, 2013 clearly shows oil slicks in the Arabian Sea scattered throughout a 66-mile-long northwest-trending belt ranging about 50 to 100 miles offshore.  We don’t know for sure if these slicks are related to the pipeline spill.  We’ve seen smaller slicks in the area in the  past, from other causes.  But these slicks seem to be generally in the right area to correspond to this recent pipeline problem, and their alignment is compatible with the wind blowing from the northwest.  If anyone can provide an accurate latitude/longitude coordinate for the exact location of the pipeline failure, that would be very helpful.

MODIS/Terra satellite image taken October 8, 2013, showing apparent oil slicks in the Arabian Sea off the west coast of India near Mumbai. Image courtesy NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team.  Analysis by SkyTruth.

If these slicks are all attributable to the pipeline failure, we don’t think this was a “small” oil spill as reported by an unnamed company official:  the two largest patches of slick at the northwest (upwind) end cover a total area of about 324 km2.  Assuming a conservative minimum average slick thickness of 1 micron, those two patches amount to about 85,500 gallons of oil.  The US Coast Guard classifies that as a “medium” sized oil spill.  If the stringy, scattered area of slicks at the southeast (downwind) end are added in, the amount likely exceeds the 100,000-gallon threshold for being classified as a “major” offshore oil spill.

The MODIS/Aqua image taken on October 7 also shows these slicks, although they are partly obscured by clouds.

2010 BP Spill in Gulf of Mexico – How Big Was It?

Final moments of the doomed Deepwater Horizon drill rig, April 22, 2010.

A judge in New Orleans is now pondering a big-money question: how big was the 2010 BP oil spill?  Exactly how much oil gushed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico throughout the relentless summer of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil (and gas) disaster?  The Summer of Spillcam? 

Thar she blows:  BP spill cam, May 30, 2010.

Despite the government shutdown, lawyers from the federal Department of Justice are duking it out in court against a team of BP attorneys.  At stake: billions of dollars in fines levied under the Clean Water Act, which are calculated based on the amount that was spilled.  The feds say BP spilled 4.2 million barrels (176.4 million gallons); BP says it was much less, about 2.45 million barrels (102.9 million gallons).  If the judge rules that BP has to pay the full $4300 fine per barrel for gross negligence, that’s a whopping difference of $7.5 BILLION.  Congress passed a law called the RESTORE Act that will send 80% of the fine to the affected Gulf states, in part to conduct ecosystem restoration projects to repair damage from the spill; if BP’s lower number prevails, that’s $6 billion less for restoration work.

SkyTruth played a part during the spill to shed light on how bad it actually was.  When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in flames, we began collecting and analyzing daily satellite imagery, and publishing maps of the growing oil slick.  A Gulf oceanographer, Dr. Ian MacDonald (then at Texas A&M, now at Florida State), saw our images and slick-size measurements and suggested that BP and Coast Guard estimates of the flow-rate of oil from the well must be far too small to result in such a large and rapidly expanding oil slick. On April 27, 2010 – three days after the Coast Guard announced the Macondo well was leaking – we published on this blog our first estimate that the flow rate was at least 20,000 barrels (840,000 gallons) per day: 20 times greater than BP and the Coast Guard were saying.

Here’s a timeline of the flow-rate estimates made for the Macondo well in the first two weeks of the spill (some of the links to news accounts may no longer work). 

  • 4/22 – Deepwater Horizon rig sinks; Coast Guard estimates “up to” 8,000 barrels per day (bpd) is leaking – source
  • 4/23 – Coast Guard reports no leaking at all from the damaged well – source
  • 4/24 – Coast Guard reports well is leaking, estimates 1,000 bpd – source
  • 4/25 – BP repeats 1,000 bpd estimate – source
  • 4/27 – 1,000 bpd still the official Coast Guard and BP estimate – source
  • 4/27 – SkyTruth and Dr. Ian MacDonald publish first estimate that spill rate is 20,000 bpd – source
  • 4/28 – NOAA weighs in and raises the official estimate to 5,000 bpd based on aerial surveys “and other factors”; BP disputes this higher estimate – source
  • 4/29 – Coast Guard and NOAA repeat their estimate of 5,000 bpd – source
  • 4/29 – BP’s Chief Operating Officer admits new estimate of 5,000 bpd may be correct; “He said there was no way to measure the flow at the seabed and estimates have to come from how much oil makes it to the surface” – source
  • 5/1 – SkyTruth and Dr. Ian MacDonald publish revised estimate of at least 26,500 bpd – source
  • 5/1 – Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen “acknowledged there was no way really to know the extent of the leak” – source – and stated that “Any exact estimate is probably impossible at this time” – source
  • 5/1 – Coast Guard and NOAA cease estimating the rate of the spill. BP continues to use 5,000 barrels per day as their estimate of the spill rate.

On May 19, NOAA and the USGS convened a panel of scientists, dubbed the Flow Rate Technical Group, to measure the flow rate using several different approaches.  On May 27, more than one month into the disaster, they issued their first preliminary estimate of the spill rate.  Subsequent estimates were much greater; their final estimate was a flow rate of 62,000 barrels per day at the beginning of the spill, tapering back to 53,000 barrels per day by the time the well was finally capped on July 15, 2010.  Some, including scientists on the Flow Rate Technical Group, claim even these numbers are too low.  

So watch closely. The judge will be bombarded by highly technical expert-witness testimony from both sides.  The complexity, and lack of absolute certainty with any indirect measurement technique, favors BP: it’s likely the judge will ultimately make some kind of compromise, and the final for-the-record number will be based on a mix of politics, confusion and fatigue more than on actual science. 

Mayflower, Arkansas — Pipeline Dilbit Spill Aftermath

When Exxon’s Pegasus oil pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Arkansas on March 29, it flooded streets and homes in a pretty suburban subdivision with dilbit — that’s “diluted bitumen.” Bitumen is a sticky, heavy precursor to oil; it’s the stuff that is being extracted from the vast tar sands mining operations up in Alberta, Canada.  The bitumen is diluted with lighter hydrocarbon liquids that essentially act as solvents so it can flow through the pipeline. 

A similar pipeline rupture in Michigan in 2010 flooded the Kalamazoo River with dilbit, a substance that — unlike crude oil — sinks rather than floats, making the cleanup significantly more difficult and expensive

The Mayflower cleanup has also been a prolonged and contentious operation, with local residents reporting illnesses in the aftermath, and disagreement about exactly what areas have been impacted.

This series of before-and-after pairs of high-resolution images of the Mayflower area yields some clues.  The “before” imagery is aerial survey photography from Google Earth that was taken on September 4, 2010.  The “after” imagery (provided to us courtesy of Sierra Club Arkansas Chapter) was shot from DigitalGlobe’s Worldview-2 satellite on July 31, 2013, four months after the spill. Some changes are easy to see: large light brown areas of bare soil show where excavation and soil removal occurred; and a notable loss of aquatic vegetation in a cove that empties into Lake Conway.  

Overview showing area of March 2013 pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas. Left/Before – September 2010 : Right/After – July 2013. Images courtesy of Sierra Club Arkansas Chapter. 

Detail 1: In the lower-left (next to SkyTruth logo) is the subdivision that was flooded with dilbit during the March 2013 spill. The Pegasus pipeline right-of-way cuts diagonally across the left (west) side of the image; two long driveways at the end of the cul-de-sac at the northwest corner of the subdivision lie directly on top of the pipeline. In the July image (right), light brown patches on north side of the subdivision probably shows area of soil that were excavated and removed as part of the cleanup operations. Oil flowed from west to east, toward Lake Conway. Left/Before – September 2010 : Right/After – July 2013 Images courtesy of Sierra Club Arkansas Chapter.

Detail 2: West end of the cove and wetlands where the spill apparently entered Lake Conway. In the after image (right) floating booms (thin, pale light lines) are strung across the cove in attempt to intercept the dilbit. Turbid, open water and very pale green area (newly planted grass?) suggest impact to wetlands and aquatic vegetation in this area. Left/Before – September 2010 : Right/After – July 2013. Images courtesy of Sierra Club Arkansas Chapter.

Detail 3: Close-up of the area where cove meets main body of Lake Conway (upper right). More booms are apparent, as are distinct changes in water color that can indicate variations in the presence of turbidity, algae, or other substances. Left/Before – September 2010 : Right/After – July 2013. Images courtesy of Sierra Club Arkansas Chapter.