Timor Sea Drilling Spill – New Air Photos

SkyTruth just got new aerial photos of the Montara platform, taken on an overflight by Environs Kimberley on September 12. The platform is still spewing crude oil into the Timor Sea and a potentially explosive fog of natural gas and gas condensate into the air. The West Triton rig is visible in one of the pics; it’s begun to drill a relief well that will attempt to intercept the damaged well 8,500 feet below the seafloor, a process that will take 3-4 weeks at best.

Montara platform and West Atlas drill rig, September 12, 2009. Photo courtesy of Environs Kimberley.

Also visible: extensive oil slicks and sheen still covering the sea in the vicinity of the platform, in calm seas. This spill has been uncontrolled now for almost a full month.

Click here to go to our growing gallery of aerial photos, maps and satellite images.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Another Exxon Valdez?

Folks are asking us “How much oil is being spilled into the Timor Sea?” We can’t answer that with the MODIS satellite images we’ve been getting from NASA; they just don’t contain enough information to estimate how thick the oil slicks are, so we can’t come up with a quantity. All we can do is measure how extensive the slicks are, and where they are.

And so far there have been no confirmed measurements of the flow rate from the uncontrolled well (it’s too dangerous to approach). The Australian Greens, in an article published August 29, made this estimate:

…based on information available on average flowrates for similar wells in the region and the company’s own data we estimate conservatively that at least 3000 barrels of oil per day are being released from the well.

Back in 2002, the Montara-3 appraisal well flowed at a rate of 5,000 barrels of oil per day. And other offshore wells in the same basin have tested at nearly 8,000 barrels per day. So this estimate seems defensible.

At 42 gallons per barrel, that’s 126,000 gallons of oil per day. The U.S. Coast Guard defines anything over 100,000 gallons as a “major” spill.

The well blew out on August 21, so as of today (9/11) it’s been spilling oil for 21 days (click here for a web-counter tracking this spill). That would mean 2,646,000 gallons have been spilled so far.

The West Triton drill rig is now on the scene after a long trip from Singapore, and is preparing to drill a relief well that will intercept the damaged well so they can fill it with mud to staunch the flow. If all goes well, it will take at least 4 weeks to complete the relief well. That means an additional 3,528,000 gallons will be spilled, for a grand total of 6,174,000 gallons. Six million gallons is more than halfway to an Exxon Valdez-sized spill.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – On The Move

It’s been 20 days now since a well blew out on the Montara oil platform in the Timor Sea; the platform was immediately evacuated and the uncontrolled well has been continuously spewing oil into the ocean ever since. MODIS images taken about three hours apart on September 10 show an area of patchy slicks and sheen about 3,600 square miles (=2,700 nautical square miles) in size, north of the Montara platform and extending well beyond Australia’s territorial waters:

NASA/MODIS satellite image, September 10, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis

Check out all the satellite images and aerial photos in our gallery.

For you armchair image analysts, here’s a little MODIS Interpretation 101: MODIS is a relatively low-resolution imaging sensor (250 meter detail) carried onboard two NASA satellites called Terra and Aqua. It reveals oil slicks most effectively when those slicks fall within the area of sunglint – where sunlight is almost directly reflected off the ocean’s surface to the satellite, making clean ocean water appear medium-gray wherever the wind is blowing. The wind kicks up ripples on the ocean’s surface; those ripples look “glittery” and the combined effect is to make the ocean surface fairly bright. Any area of smooth, calm water will appear dark. Oil slicks tend to dampen those little ripples and make the surface smooth. Of course, if the wind is very calm and no ripples are generated, the entire area will look dark whether there’s an oil slick present or not.

When Terra orbited overhead on the 10th, the Montara platform was in the middle of a large calm area. Three hours later when Aqua took a look, the Montara platform was just outside the region of sunglint. That means we’re not able to detect any slicks in the immediate vicinity of the platform itself on the 10th, even though the well is continuing to leak and there are almost certainly slicks around the platform. Hopefully we’ll get better imagery in coming days.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill Covers 5,800 Square Miles

SkyTruth just downloaded and processed a MODIS satellite image from NASA that was taken on September 3, 2009. It shows the area in the Timor Sea affected by oil slicks and sheen from the Montara / West Atlas blowout and oil spill that began on August 21 is now over 5,800 square miles in size. That’s more than double what it was just four days earlier, on August 30. And it’s as big as Connecticut and Rhode Island put together:

NASA/MODIS satellite image, September 3, 2009, with SkyTruth analysis

Heads up, Jakarta: the northern parts of this slick complex now appear to extend into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Here is the September 3 image with our analysis. And here is the image alone, with no annotation.

Keep checking in for more information and updates to our online gallery.

UPDATE 9/10/09: The West Triton drill rig is expected to arrive on the scene today, and will be set up to begin drilling a relief well, a procedure expected to take four weeks. An Australian official reported yesterday that there had “been a reduction in the number and size of slick patches being observed.”

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – What If?

Since the US Congress and the Florida Legislature are debating the merits of allowing drilling for oil and gas much closer to Florida’s coast, we thought it would be interesting to illustrate what could happen if a Montara-style blowout occurred in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. We outlined the area in the Timor Sea where slicks and sheen were detected across 2,500 square miles on a satellite image, and overlaid that area along the Florida coast. One illustration shows the slicks originating from a point about 50 miles off Pensacola, in the vicinity of the Destin Dome drilling prospect. The other shows slicks resulting from a hypothetical blowout 80 miles offshore from Tampa Bay:

Hypothetical Montara-sized spill off Tampa Bay, Florida

These are just illustrations, not quantitative models, and they don’t take into account local currents or wind. But they are based on the ongoing reality of the Montara blowout and spill.