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.

UPDATE 27 March 2017 – based on this tweet, we think these slicks were related to a spill in Iran’s Siri offshore oil field.  Possibly related to their attempt to revive 18 previously abandoned wells?

Here is another look at the March 11 radar image, with the EEZ boundaries between UAE and Iran superimposed. Note the disputed zone where EEZ boundaries are not agreed upon. Most of the slick appears to be in UAE’s waters on this date:

EEZ boundaries between UAE, Iran, and disputed waters superimposed on March 11, 2017 Sentinel-1 radar image showing apparent oil spill. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

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

Image released by ANP of Frade Field oil spill in news release here: http://www.anp.gov.br/noticias/1436-informacoes-atualizadas-dos-orgaos-federais-que-compoem-o-grupo-de-acompanhamento-do-incidente-no-campo-de-frade

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.

 

Chronic Pollution From Offshore Drilling — How Bad Is It?

Nobody really knows.

And that’s a ridiculous state of affairs in the 21st century.  Almost 5 years after the BP spill riveted everyone’s attention on the risks of offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, we’re still relying almost entirely on pollution reports submitted to the government by the polluters themselves who are, of course, subject to fines and other sanctions for those spills. Evidence of non-reporting and chronic under-reporting of oil spills was uncovered by our 2012 analysis of NRC reports and comparison with satellite imagery, an analysis recently validated in a peer-reviewed study published by scientists at Florida State University.

And just today, the Associated Press published a jaw-dropping, in-depth story and video describing the chronic Taylor Energy oil leak a few miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico that’s been steadily oozing oil into the Gulf since 2004. This is a site that our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, researchers at Florida State, and tireless pilot and biologist Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care have documented repeatedly since we first “discovered” it on satellite imagery back in the spring of 2010.  Yet even industry folks were surprised when AP reporters contacted them about the ongoing, apparently unfixable Taylor Energy leak.


 

Some information is better than none, but the unverified and demonstrably inaccurate information we get is not a credible foundation for building public policy governing offshore oil and gas development.

[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

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.

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.


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…

 


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