Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Finally Stopped?

PTTEP Australasia is reporting that their fifth attempt to kill the leaking well on the Montara platform has succeeded, shutting off the uncontrolled flow of oil, gas, and natural gas condensate that has been polluting the water and air off Western Australia since the blowout occurred on August 21. The fire that ignited over the weekend, engulfing the Montara platform and the attached West Atlas drill rig, has also been nearly extinguished.

Heavy mud was pumped into the damaged well at a point 8,600 feet below the seabed, where it was intercepted by a relief well drilled from the West Triton jackup rig. Towed in from Singapore, the West Triton did not arrive on scene until September 10, nearly three weeks after the blowout occurred. It took nearly four more weeks to set up the rig, drill down to the intercept depth, and make the first unsuccessful attempt to intercept the damaged well. Finally, after 74 days, the spill has been stopped. Difficult tasks ahead: now workers must try to re-enter the well from the fire-damaged Montara platform so they can inject permanent cement plugs. As a PTTEP official notes:

We do not underestimate the significantly increased technical complexity, logistical challenges and hazards of the work now required in the wake of the damage caused by the fire to the wellhead platform and the West Atlas rig.

Estimates of the amount of oil spilled vary widely. PTTEP’s unexplained estimate of 400 barrels per day yields a total of 1,243,200 gallons. The Australian government’s estimate of “up to” 2,000 barrels per day means a total spill of as much as 6, 216,000 gallons. And an estimate of 3,000 barrels per day based on the known flow rates of other wells in the area results in a spill of 9,324,000 gallons, almost as large as the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez spill that, 20 years after a massive cleanup operation, is still affecting Alaskan communities and the environment.

Spectacular AP video of the platform fire here.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Well is Intercepted, Rig is Burning

Good news: at last, the fifth attempt to intercept the damaged Montara oil well succeeded this weekend. Bad news: while starting operations to kill the out-of-control well, the Montara / West Atlas platform and drilling rig caught fire:

Montara / West Atlas platform and rig burning off Western Australia. Photograph from PTTEP.
Watch video of the fire

Thankfully nobody was injured. The cause of the blaze is not known. Oil, gas, and natural gas condensate have been spewing from an uncontrolled well on the platform since August 21 (73 days ago).

The 100-mile-long smoke plume from this fire is visible from space, on MODIS Aqua and Terra images taken on November 2. And residual patches of oil and sheen from the ongoing spill have approached within 27 miles of islands along the Australian coast:

MODIS / Aqua image taken on November 2, 2009. See more SkyTruth images here.

This will certainly complicate the effort to gain control of the leaking well. And if the fire destroys the Montara platform and the attached West Atlas drilling rig, as some observers are now suggesting, then we may never learn exactly what happened to cause this blowout in the first place. On the plus side (trying hard to be optimistic here), if the fire is burning off most of the leaking hydrocarbons, then the area of ocean impacted by oil slicks and dispersants should greatly diminish.

Working from the nearby West Triton relief rig that drilled the intercept well, heavy drilling mud will be pumped into the damaged Montara well until the flow of hydrocarbons is shut off. That should promptly extinguish the fire.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – 4th Relief Attempt Fails

The fourth attempt to kill the out-of-control well on the Montara platform was scrubbed due to equipment problems. The well has now been leaking oil, gas and condensate for 70 days. And the operator, PTTEP, is now saying the well may not be plugged for “several more weeks.” Indonesia officially confirmed that oil has reached their territorial waters, something we documented in satellite imagery back on September 3.

World Wildlife Fund just released a report on their research cruise to the spill-affected area, where they observed slicks and impacted wildlife. See their photos and video for an up-close look, and get the full report here. (Photo #4 shows researchers studying a SkyTruth image of this spill.) The Australian government has also released a report on the research and wildlife surveys they’ve conducted so far in the area.

Common Noddy recovered from the Montara oil spill by researchers working for the Australian government. Photo taken from their report.

Meanwhile, a second leaking well has been reported in another offshore field about 50km northwest of Montara. This is being described by the company as a minor gas leak but it’s been ongoing for some time with no immediate prospect for repair. Fugitive methane emissions such as this from oil and gas facilities could be a major source of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Here’s a visual of those emissions: we processed a MODIS satellite image of the Montara area that was taken on October 27. The well is still actively spewing oil, but the sunglint conditions on this image are not favorable so the slicks aren’t visible. But a pale plume is emanating from the platform location and spreading out as it blows toward the Australian coast to the southeast. This is probably an aerial plume of hydrocarbon smog caused by the natural gas and vaporized natural gas condensate that are also blowing out of the damaged well. Usually those airborne emissions are invisible, but atmospheric conditions must have been right to form a visible smog:

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Timor Sea Drilling Spill: Two Months and Still Going

The ongoing Montara / West Atlas oil spill in the Timor Sea off Western Australia is now in its 62nd day. So far, three attempts to intercept and plug the leaking well have failed. Another attempt should happen today. A MODIS / Terra satellite image taken on October 21 – exactly two months after the blowout and spill began – shows slicks and sheen covering 2,600 square miles and approaching within 35 miles of the Kimberley coast. Satellite images show that oil has been moving to the south-southeast from the Montara platform, toward Australia, for the past few days:

NASA/MODIS satellite image, October 21, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis. See all of SkyTruth’s images here.

The Australian Senate held a hearing this week on this relentless spill and the oil company, PTTEP, could offer no justification for their oft-repeated estimate that 400 barrels of oil per day were spewing from the damaged well. This estimate may be an order of magnitude too low. As reported today in The Australian:


A Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism official told Greens senator Rachel Siewert on Wednesday: “The maximum leakage rate from that well could be as much as 2000 barrels of oil a day, with condensate as well.”

Senator Siewert acknowledged that did not mean 2000 barrels were actually coming out, rather that it was the maximum amount possible if the well were operating at full capacity.


At the 2,000 barrel per day rate, over 5 million gallons would have been spilled so far. That’s getting into Exxon Valdez territory.

Could this happen in the US? We can’t say until we get more details about what caused this blowout. But it’s worth noting than in the US Gulf of Mexico, blowouts are not rare occurrences: the US Minerals Management Service has investigated 18 blowouts and 13 “loss of well control” incidents since 1983, several involving fires and fatalities. In 1992, the Greenhill Petroleum blowout and fire sent 70,000-120,000 gallons of oil into Timbalier Bay, Louisiana. Blowouts happened twice in 2007, and the most recent loss of well control was in 2008. And many more, less-serious, incidents can be found here.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – 3rd Relief Attempt Fails

Ugh, back to the ongoing Montara / West Atlas oil spill. Looks like the third time’s not the charm in the Timor Sea, where the latest attempt to get this massive spill under control has failed. Oil and natural gas have been spewing into the ocean and air off Western Australia for 58 days. The Montara oil platform — and the West Atlas drill rig that was working there when the blowout occurred on August 21 — are still at high risk for fire and explosion, and cannot be approached.

This is now being reported as the worst oil spill in Australia since offshore drilling began there 40 years ago.

So far we’ve seen no reports detailing what actually went wrong during drilling that caused a previously-completed well on the Montara platform to blow out. The Norwegian company that operates the West Atlas rig, Seadrill, is also currently working in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico on complex, ultra-deepwater drilling projects. Seadrill is a major global offshore drilling contractor, with a fleet of 42 drill rigs. They’ve got an office in Houston, Texas, and have identified the Gulf of Mexico as a targeted area of operation for the company.

At this point we’ve seen no evidence that a Montara-type drilling accident couldn’t happen anywhere, including in US waters. The public deserves a comprehensive and independent analysis of the Montara failure, once the well has been plugged and the platform can be re-occupied.