NOAA Air Photos Show Slicks (Oil?) Following Hurricane Ike

NOAA air photo showing slicks near Galveston

NOAA has just posted aerial photographs taken on September 14-15 in the Galveston area. These photos show what might be oil slicks, some originating at what appear to be large storage tanks. We can’t say for sure at this point, and we can’t tell how thick the oil is from these photographs — much of it may be thin “sheen” — so we don’t know how big these possible spills are. So take a look for yourself. Here’s our preliminary analysis. We don’t have any confirmation so be skeptical. If you can confirm or refute any of this, please provide a comment.

Extensive slicks near possible oil storage facility:

Slicks emanating from storage tanks:

Slick from large storage tank:

Large slick – source unknown:

Uh Oh – Here Comes Gustav?!

Here we go again?

Hopefully not, but exactly three years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall after buzzing through the offshore oilfields in the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 5 storm (we documented some of the resulting offshore oil spills), and now it looks like Hurricane Gustav may be heading for the same trajectory. It just regained hurricane strength today, and forecasters have been predicting at least a Category 3 storm when it reaches the hot water of the central Gulf of Mexico.

We’re also hopeful that the mooring systems for floating drill rigs have been significantly strengthened. During Katrina, some of these huge rigs broke loose and got blown around the Gulf, dragging their anchors across the seafloor and tearing up the pipeline network. We think that caused many of the offshore slicks we observed on satellite imagery.

But most of the oil spilled by hurricanes Katrina and Rita happened onshore: over 9 million gallons, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, spilled from coastal refineries, storage tanks and pipelines – 6 major spills (>100,000 gallons), 5 medium spills, and over 5,000 minor spills. And those onshore facilities are just as vulnerable now as they were three years ago. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and say a prayer for the folks down along the Gulf coast. And keep an eye on Gustav. (What’s that you say? Hanna too?? You gotta be kidding me….)

San Francisco Bay’s Sneaky Bridges Strike Again!

Another of those treacherous San Francisco Bay bridges – this time the nefarious Richmond-San Rafael bridge – apparently jumped out in the path of a barge carrying nearly 65,000 barrels (2.7 MILLION gallons) of heavy oil last night. The Coast Guard reports that none of the oil has been spilled, although the barge was damaged on the starboard bow and the hull may have been breached. Check out the story by KRON Channel 4 and their video news conference with the Coast Guard.

(Generic tug-and-barge pic purely for illustration – courtesy of this excellent image gallery)

Coming so soon after the Cosco Busan fuel-oil spill in the Bay, this is a vivid reminder that accidents will happen. In this case (so far at least) the folks in San Francisco have gotten lucky and the Coast Guard response was timely. I hope the folks living around Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and other busy port areas in confined estuaries are paying close attention and keeping on their toes – it’s only a matter of time before spills occur, and as the Cosco Busan incident illustrated, immediate effective response is necessary to prevent costly damage to both local economies and natural resources.

Oil Spill Season

Wow, what the heck is goin’ on in our oceans?

This has been an awful two months for oil spills, starting in late October with the Pemex oil platform accident and continuing crude-oil spill in the southern Gulf of Mexico; a huge oil tanker spill in the Black Sea; the comparatively small, yet still quite damaging, Cosco Busan fuel-oil spill in San Francisco Bay; a major spill, the worst ever in South Korea, that’s destroyed shellfishing grounds and coated beaches; and now, a 1-million-plus-gallon crude-oil spill by Statoil, the state oil company of Norway, in the North Sea.

Cumulatively these spills represent more than 6 million gallons of oil. What a mess. As a California state official noted, the ecological effects of these spills continues for years, even decades, long after our attention has drifted elsewhere…

Hurricane Katrina – Gulf of Mexico Oil Spills

Speaking of oil spills, SkyTruth images revealed significant spills covering a large area of the northern Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. At the time, nobody was talking about what had happened to the 4,000 offshore oil platforms – and 34,000 miles of pipeline on the seafloor – when Katrina ripped through the Gulf as a Cat 5 storm, followed a few weeks later by Hurricane Rita. Attention was rightly focused on the unfolding human tragedy, as well as the 7-9 million gallons of oil spilled from damaged pipelines, refineries and storage tanks onshore.

But for months after the storms, officials from government and industry repeatedly claimed that there were no “significant” spills in the Gulf. That line is still heard even now. Yet in May 2006, the U.S. Minerals Management Service published their offshore damage assessment: 113 platforms totally destroyed, and – more importantly – 457 pipelines damaged, 101 of those major lines with 10″ or larger diameter. At least 741,000 gallons were spilled from 124 reported sources (the Coast Guard calls anything over 100,000 gallons a “major” spill).

 

Wells and platforms were shut down before the storm, so leakage from those facilities was minimal. Pipelines were shut down too. But what the officials failed to mention is they don’t require industry to “purge” pipelines before a severe storm – so they were probably still loaded with oil, gas or liquid gas condensate. Any section of pipeline that was breached leaked all of that product into the Gulf within hours of the storm. That’s what we think accounts for the widespread slicks seen on the imagery from September 1 and 2, covering hundreds of square miles and obviously emanating from many points of origin. These slicks dispersed after several days of high winds offshore, as shown by our followup imagery taken on September 12, but a few problems remained as evidenced by ongoing leaks from wrecked platforms.

 

This report from MMS details the pipeline damage that occurred.