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.

Timor Sea Drilling Spill – What Happened?

Still smoking: fire-damaged Montara platform (left) and West Atlas jackup drilling rig (right). The $250M rig is a total loss. See more photos at WA Today and in SkyTruth’s gallery.

The Montara platform operator, PTTEP, claims it knows what caused the August 21 blowout that lead to this massive oil spill, but is withholding that information from the public. Meanwhile a whistleblower has come forward into the information vacuum to claim that the drillers had been taking shortcuts:

Thai-based PTTEP said last week it knew the cause of the spill but would not disclose it, but the industry insider said schedule and cost were put ahead of safety and the environment…

He said he believed six wells were being drilled that morning and the third of those was being drilled when the first well blew…

“This in my opinion was because they were trying to save time so they drilled to a certain depth and did not plug it securely because they did not expect flow.

I’m not sure how much credibility to give this. A rig can only drill one well at a time, and these wells were going beyond 8,000 feet. It takes days to drill to that depth. So the information that “six wells were being drilled that morning” is suspect.

Nevertheless, something certainly did go wrong on August 21, and the Australian government launched an investigation to discover the cause and evaluate possible weaknesses in their oversight of drilling, spill response capabilities, decisionmaking. Here in the U.S., where we’re on the verge of allowing new drilling in areas where it’s been off-limits for decades (such as Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia and parts of Alaska), folks are impatiently awaiting definitive word on what caused the Montara blowout. Some have suggested “it could never happen here.” Until we know the actual cause, we can’t draw any firm conclusions.

But one thing is certain: a spill like this is extremely expensive. The $250M West Atlas drill rig has been destroyed. Replacing the damaged topsides of the Montara oil platform will cost at least $16M. PTTEP estimates the costs of the lost well and their response actions to approach $170M. Australian taxpayers have spent more than $5M for spill response activities so far, which ultimately may be repaid by PTTEP. What’s unknown at this time are the economic losses that could be suffered by Western Australia’s $8M fishing industry, and the potential for long-term damage to the environment. NGOs also claim significant damage in Indonesia, with reports of bankruptcy among the fishermen of Timor.

Peter Garrett, Australia’s Environment Minister, is being criticized for defending what some characterize as a tepid government reponse to this major oil spill. A little irony here: Peter was lead singer for the group Midnight Oil (no joke). In the mid-80s he rocked my world with Power and the Passion. I jumped all over the room like a spaz whenever I heard that tune. I still do, only slower. More irony: in 1991 Midnight Oil played an illegal concert outside Exxon headquarters in New York to protest the Exxon Valdez spill. Check out the video.

One day in the mid-1980s, Peter flashed me the peace sign when I called out his name as he strode down M Street in Georgetown before a show in DC. I was a newbie geologist and he was a famous and idealistic singer. I wonder if he remembers the lyrics he wrote back in the day:

Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line.

See all of SkyTruth’s photos, maps and satellite images of the Montara spill. Read all our blog posts on this subject.

And please, help us out if you like what we do here at SkyTruth. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

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.