Offshore Drilling: Nobody’s Perfect

Oil slick from blowout during drilling off Australia, August 25, 2009
Photo Credit: AeroRescue Darwin / AMSA

Should we pursue offshore drilling in new areas like the Florida coast? It’s a balancing act all right – good jobs and a partial reduction in our dependence on foreign oil (dang those Canadians!) vs. the potential damage to beaches, water and air quality, and tourism- or fishing-based economies.

A few things to consider as Chambers of Commerce and politicians up and down both coasts ponder this issue:

Hypothetical 80-square-mile oil slick from a spill source ten miles off Florida’s west coast

Visuals help shed some light on the risks. Based on the Eugene Island Pipeline spill and resulting oil slick, we’ve created illustrations showing two hypothetical oil spills: one occurring from a point ten miles off the coast of Florida, and another occurring from the vicinity of Platform Irene off the coast of California (where a similar pipeline spill — the Torch spill — actually happened in 1997, oiling the beaches and killing over 700 birds). These are just illustrations that don’t take into account local wind and current, but they do accurately represent the actual size of the Eugene Island slick.

NASA Launches New Weather Satellite

GOES-14 launch – click to see a larger image

On June 27, 2009, NASA successfully launched GOES-14, the newest in a long line of workhorse weather satellites, and will soon turn over operation of the bird to NOAA. Most of the images you see on TV weather reports come from the GOES satellites. They’re low-resolution, but cover huge chunks of the planet in a single view. And since they are geostationary (the “G” in GOES) — parked at an altitude of 22,000 miles where the orbital motion of the satellite precisely keeps time with the rotation of the earth — these satellites are continuously monitoring cloud patterns and other atmospheric parameters, allowing forecasters to predict the weather and keep a close eye on severe storms.

GOES image of Hurricane Katrina, August 28, 2005

Here at SkyTruth, we use GOES images to help us track the motion of hurricanes that threaten offshore oil and gas facilities, and to evaluate the wind and rain conditions in an area when we’re acquiring satellite radar images to detect and map oil slicks. With another hurricane season upon us, we’re glad to see this perfect launch.

Mount Redoubt Volcano and the Drift River Oil Terminal

Maybe in retrospect it wasn’t such a great idea: storing six million gallons of crude oil next to a major waterway, just a few miles downstream from an active volcano with a recent history of explosive violence. But that’s just what the oil industry has done in the state of Alaska. The Chevron-operated Drift River Terminal, a battery of crude-oil storage tanks, sits on the western shore of Cook Inlet about 100 miles south of Anchorage, at the mouth of the Drift River. Location is everything — the terminal has a cranky neighbor just 25 miles upstream: Mount Redoubt Volcano awoke on March 22 from a geologically brief 18-year slumber, with a series of explosive blasts that sent ash towering into the sky and chaotic flows of ash, mud, ice chunks and boulders streaming down the Drift River valley (see photos of debris flows at the terminal, taken on March 23).

Redoubt erupts: March 26, 2009 photo by Bret Higman of Ground Truth Trekking

Check out SkyTruth’s gallery of images, showing the relative locations of Redoubt and the terminal, and outlining the likely path for debris-flows cascading down the volcano’s flank and following the Drift River channel to Cook Inlet. So far, several flows have reached the terminal, but there are not reports yet of any significant damage. With 6 million gallons of crude on board, let’s hope the terminal can withstand this onslaught – it’s likely that Redoubt will continue to erupt violently for months, as it last did in 1989-1990. The Cook Inletkeeper has additional resources here including a letter to the Department of Homeland Security requesting that they remove the oil from the storage facility.

Yesterday at about 9:30am (eastern time) I was on the phone with Bret Higman who lives in Seldovia, a town about 80 miles south of Redoubt, when he suddenly gave a shout – “Whoa, the volcano is erupting.” Hig grabbed several pics of the event, which sent ash 65,000 feet into the sky and more debris flows down the Drift River toward the oil terminal.

UPDATE 4/15/09: NASA’s Advanced Land Imager captured a stunning view of erupting Mount Redoubt with a long plume of airborne ash streaming to the southeast across Cook Inlet. The image also clearly shows multiple lahars that have flowed down the Drift River valley and around the oil terminal, with some reaching Cook Inlet. We’ve created two posters from this image (11″x15″ at 200dpi) – an overview showing the volcano and the terminal, and a cloesup detail view of the terminal.

UPDATE 9/15/09: In response to a comment, it’s not 20/20 hindsight to say this terminal is located in a high-risk area, since the last major eruption in 1990 generated a mudflow that overtopped the berm and entered the storage tank facility. That was a clear warning shot from Mother Nature. We’ve decided to ignore it and carry on as usual. If I made my living as a fisherman in Cook Inlet, I’d be pretty concerned about that.

Hurricane Ike – Collateral Damage?

A 900-foot oil tanker carrying 41 million gallons of crude oil from the North Sea is in trouble in the northern Gulf of Mexico, about 65 miles from its final destination of Galveston, Texas. The SKS Satilla is listing because three of its ballast tanks were punctured. Nobody is sure yet what caused this sudden and mysterious damage, but coincidentally the submerged wreck of a drilling platform that had been missing since Hurricane Ike last year was just discovered near the crippled tanker. Current speculation is the tanker collided with the submerged ruins. Crews are working to transfer the crude from the tanker to other vessels.

This is yet another reminder that offshore oil and gas drilling, even with all of today’s advanced technology, remains a risky business. The mobile offshore drilling unit that went missing is one of several drilling rigs that were lost or set adrift nearly six months ago by the relatively moderate Hurricane Ike, a Category 3 storm. This particular rig was the ENSCO 74, a relatively new (built in 1999) jack-up owned by Ensco International. It’s very fortunate that the cargo hold of the tanker was not breached — the Satilla, less than three years old, has a double hull. Has that saved the Gulf Coast from a massive oil spill?

This time the Gulf got lucky. But not all tankers in US waters have double hulls yet, and sometimes even that is not enough. Remember that in November 2005 a barge carrying heavy fuel oil hit the submerged wreck of an offshore oil platform that had been destroyed several weeks earlier by Hurricane Rita, a monster Category 5 storm. The Coast Guard reports that nearly 3 million gallons of heavy oil were spilled into the Gulf in that incident. See the final paragraph of the USCG Katrina-Rita damage summary.

These incidents are stark reminders of the risk that still accompanies offshore oil and gas development, particularly from the associated facilities and other infrastructure — both onshore and offshore — that are necessary to support drilling and production.

AP: Hurricane Ike Environmental Toll Apparent

NOAA photomosaic showing oil slicks at Goat Island, Texas – September 14, 2008

The Associated Press reportedat least 448 releases of oil, gasoline and dozens of other substances into the air and water and onto the ground in Louisiana and Texas” as a result of storm damage and flooding of coastal facilities by Hurricane Ike. “The Minerals Management Service, which oversees oil production in federal waters offshore, said the storm destroyed at least 52 oil platforms of roughly 3,800 in the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty-two more were severely damaged.”

The worst spill identified so far qualifies as a major spill by Coast Guard definition: nearly 266,000 gallons of oil released from a battery of storage tanks on Goat Island, Texas. Here’s what that site looked like before Ike; and here’s how it looked on NOAA aerial survey photos taken on September 14, 2008. You can see how the tanks got knocked around by the storm surge and wave action.

Where did most of the oil and other substances end up? Out in the Gulf of Mexico. Where we get a lot of fish and shrimp. Mmmmm….