Atlantic Drilling – New Jersey Oil Spillustration

A lot of folks were surprised by the Obama administration’s recently announced plan to expand oil and gas drilling in US waters to much of the Atlantic coast and into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska. Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to a wild-salmon fishing industry that rakes in some $300-400 million every year, will be put off-limits to drilling until 2017.

Under this plan, drilling will be allowed off the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to Delaware:

Map source: New York Times

SkyTruth thought it would be interesting to illustrate what could happen if a drill rig off Delaware had a blowout and spill comparable to what we saw unfold off Australia last year. So we took the cumulative oil slick “footprint” – all of the oil slicks we observed on NASA satellite images throughout the ten-week duration of the Australia spill – and transposed it onto the Atlantic coast, assuming the source of the spill was a well 60 miles off the Delaware shore. The entire coast of New Jersey, from Cape May to Sandy Hook, would be impacted:

Hypothetical illustration showing 2009 Australia oil spill superimposed on Atlantic coast.

This image was used by New Jersey Senator Lautenberg in a meeting yesterday with Senators Kerry and Lieberman, who support more offshore drilling if it helps gain the votes they need to pass a climate bill. Lautenberg, and his colleague Senator Menendez, aren’t big fans of that plan.

We want to stress that our illustration is hypothetical. It’s not based on a numerical model of how oil would likely move and disperse if a well off Delaware really did have a major problem; that’s a function of wind, tide, current, the properties of the oil, the rate and quantity of spillage, and of course the effectiveness of our efforts to contain the oil in such an incident. But this illustration is based on actual observations of a real event, the Montara / West Atlas blowout and spill that we tracked in the Timor Sea off Australia last year.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Superimposed on Florida Coast

Given the big Hands Across the Sand event tomorrow that’s getting so much media attention down in Florida, we thought it would be interesting to take the cumulative Timor Sea oil slick footprint from the Montara / West Atlas blowout and spill last year and superimpose it on the Gulf coast of Florida. This is not a spill simulation; it’s just a map intended to show how large an area of ocean the Australia spill ultimately impacted during the ten-week period after the blowout until the spill was finally stopped:

Cumulative Timor Sea oil spill footprint superimposed on Florida’s Gulf coast.

This is based on SkyTruth’s analysis of MODIS satellite images provided by NASA throughout the event, from August 21 to November 1. Read all about it in this blog; see our large collection of images and maps; and follow us on Twitter to stay tuned in on all our latest work.

And if you like what we do, and want us to keep at it, please make a donationSkyTruth is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization registered with the IRS, and your donation is fully tax-deductible.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Cumulative Impact

We’ve generated a sequence of maps showing the cumulative area of ocean covered by oil slicks and sheen during the 10-week oil spill in the Timor Sea off Australia last year. This is based on SkyTruth’s analysis of MODIS satellite images obtained from NASA throughout the event.

Cumulative slicks from Timor Sea blowout and spill; state of Virginia superimposed for scale.


We calculate a total area of 22,163 square miles where oil slicks or sheen occurred at some time during the spill, which began when a well blew out during drilling operations on the new Montara platform on August 21, and ended when the damaged well was finally plugged on November 1. This is about the size of SkyTruth’s home state of West Virginia. Because there were many days when the MODIS images weren’t useful for mapping slicks (due to cloud cover or illumination conditions), the actual area is probably greater.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Questions Remain

Permanent plugs have successfully been installed and pressure-tested in the notorious H1 well that blew out on August 21, 2009, in the Timor Sea and spewed oil and gas for 71 days. Some information is now trickling out as the Australian government investigates the causes and consequences of the Montara / West Atlas blowout and ten-week oil spill. News accounts have focused on the drilling contractor’s apparent failure to install a basic piece of safety equipment called a corrosion cap. This seems like a serious mistake for a major offshore drilling contractor like Seadrill. But we’re not yet sure that the lack of this cap could, on its own, cause the well to blow out.

Upstream’s coverage provides the most technical detail. Apparently there was an existing weakness in the well due to a poor cementing job. Ho hum, cement…but as they say, the devil is in the details…so bone up on well drilling (especially the section on cementing) before you go much further:

the source of the flow was in the 244 millimetre casing and the most likely cause of that was a channel in the cement in the shoe track casing

This article also raises a lot of questions. It states that in August PTTEP determined no corrosion cap had been installed when the H1 well was suspended in March. Yet on August 20, “the corrosion cap was removed” to “clean corroded casing threads,” the cap “was not reinstalled,” and the well blew out the next day:

  • Does this mean that Seadrill actually had installed a pressure cap on the H1 well?
    • If so, when exactly did that happen?
  • Was the removal of that cap to “clean corroded casing threads” unusual, or is that a common thing to do?
    • If common, what are the safety procedures during this operation, and were they being followed?
  • Was Seadrill (or some other contractor?) doing that work on the H1 well at the same time they were actively drilling a new well at the platform, as initially reported?
    • If so, is that allowed, and does it conform with industry standard practice?
  • What has been done to suspend or abandon the well that Seadrill had been drilling when the H1 blowout occurred?
  • What will be done with the other suspended wells and the Montara platform structure?
  • Why was the bulk of the fire centered on the West Atlas rig, rather than on the Montara platform? Check out the pictures and spectacular video.
    • This suggests to me that the well that was being drilled is the one that ignited, rather than the H1 well. If so, why?

Wonky stuff, for sure. But it’s important to get all of these questions asked, and answered, before the government closes the books on this investigation, so we can be sure we know what really happened.

Meanwhile, another tropical cyclone is making a Montara drive-by. This time it’s Magda, a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 60-70 knots. On January 21 at 0:50 hours Zulu time, this MODIS Terra satellite image showed the eye of Magda to be about 186 km southwest of the Montara oil platform. The storm is moving almost directly south, and should not pose a threat to operations as crews are now assessing the structural integrity of the fire-damaged platform.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Montara Well is Permanently Plugged

Good news out of Australia – the well that blew out on August 21, spilled crude oil into the ocean and natural gas into the air for ten weeks, then caught fire and burned out of control for 2 days when the leak was finally stopped – has been permanently plugged and capped, according to a report from Upstream Online today. That’s almost five months since the blowout occurred. No doubt the plugging operation was made a bit more complicated due to fire damage sustained by the Montara oil platform:

No word yet on what will be done with the other wells that had already been drilled at the Montara platform. Will they too be permanently plugged, capped and abandoned? Or will the operator, PTTEP Australasia, attempt to put them into production?

Read all about the Timor Sea blowout and spill on this blog, and see photos and satellite images of the spill in SkyTruth’s gallery.

SkyTruth Testifies at Senate Hearing

SkyTruth testified at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on November 19. The general subject of the hearing was Federal stewardship of offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters. We were invited to give our perspective on several significant oil spill incidents we’ve investigated over the past few years: the recent Montara platform blowout and spill in the Timor Sea off Western Australia; this summer’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico from the Eugene Island Pipeline operated by Shell; and the spills from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and Ike in 2008, that exposed the achilles heel of offshore production: the vulnerability and severe spill risk posed by the coastal infrastructure – especially pipelines and storage facilities – that is necessary to support offshore drilling.

You can download our full written testimony here, and watch a video webcast here. Read coverage of the hearing from the Oil & Gas Journal here.

“The fact is, these things happen.” – Senator Mary Landrieu

Louisiana’s Senator Landrieu, a staunch supporter of drilling, accused us of lying to the American public and scaring them with our tales of disaster. She doesn’t seem to trust the American people to be able to make up their own minds about the pros and cons of offshore drilling if they are presented with the information. All we did was testify about real things that have really happened, to make the point that despite advances in technology, mistakes are still made and accidents still happen – and with offshore oil production, the consequences still can be severe.

The senator tried to downplay the Montara spill, claiming it was only about 800,000 gallons and would only fill 1/3 of the Reflecting Pool out in front of the Capitol. Now I have no idea how she came up with that number, or how big the reflecting pool is, but I do know that the U.S. Coast Guard categorizes oil spills into three size classes: minor, medium and major. And a “major” spill is anything larger than 100,000 gallons.

Near the end of the hearing, Sen. Landrieu stood in front of a large poster of the flaming Montara oil platform, waved her hand at it, and said “These things happen.”

Which is exactly the point.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – Fire Aftermath

SkyTruth just obtained several new photographs, taken from a nearby vessel shortly after the fire was extinguished, that clearly show the severe damage sustained by the Montara oil platform and the attached West Atlas drill rig.

See all the photos and images in our gallery. The new ones are:

These photos are from an anonymous source, so SkyTruth can’t vouch for their accuracy. But they closely resemble this post-fire photo recently published in WA Today, and seem to be legitimate. A big thank-you to the photographer who took these shots and is allowing us to make them available to the public.