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Sentinel 1 radar satellite image showing small slick in the Gulf of Mexico on December 23, 2017, indicating an apparent leak or spill from an oil platform. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency (ESA).

A Look at the Risks of Offshore Drilling as Trump Proposes Largest Leasing Expansion Ever

Last week, the Trump Administration proposed to open up nearly all Federal waters for oil and gas drilling, reversing decades-long protection of areas in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

On December 23rd, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 satellite collected an image of the Heater Plf platform which appears to be leaking oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The Heater Plf is located approximately 13 kilometers north of the Delta National Wildlife Refuge in the Mississippi Delta. Based on our conservative analysis, the slick detected on this image holds at least 220 gallons of oil.

Sentinel 1 radar satellite image showing small slick in the Gulf of Mexico on December 23, 2017, indicating an apparent leak or spill from an oil platform. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency (ESA).

The image above reveals a small slick indicating a minor spill. But it’s the latest illustration of a much larger problem that doesn’t get much attention: the steady drumbeat of leaks and spills that accompany offshore drilling. For more examples illustrating this stealthy issue, see our analysis calculating the volume of the ongoing Taylor leak, our map of 10,000 spills since the BP spill and our work with the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.

This proposal to open Federal waters comes hand-in-hand with an announcement made last week, in which the Administration proposed reducing safety regulations on oil and gas drilling in the outer continental shelf. Currently, only the coastal waters of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico can be leased for drilling. These proposed reductions nullify safety rules which were put in place after the fatal and costly BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.

The Heater Plf platform is owned by New Century Exploration LLC, and according to information provided by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) the platform is no longer producing oil but has not been removed. In this 2014 legal brief, New Century and Champion Exploration LLC state that the new requirements under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act made it “infeasible” for them to prove their financial capability to handle oil spill preparedness. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, drilling companies were required to estimate the cost to clean up a “worst-case” scenario. New Century could not demonstrate they had the $1.8 billion required to clean up a worst-case spill, so they ceased activity at this site.

With the administration pushing to open new areas to drilling, it seems reckless to be walking back the safety rules put in place to help prevent the next catastrophic oil spill. More than seven years later, the Gulf is still feeling the effects of the largest accidental oil spill in history, while the drilling industry argues these regulations are burdensome to stakeholders and unnecessary. Can we afford to relax our safety standards regarding oil and gas drilling? Can the Gulf of Mexico survive another worst-case scenario like the Deepwater Horizon spill? Can we risk these disasters in the Gulf and elsewhere? Do we want the onus of recovery from these incidents to be shouldered by the taxpayers?

It’s an essential part of our democracy to voice your opinion about decisions that jeopardize public safety and the health of our public lands and waters. Submit your comment on the proposed rollback of the offshore drilling safety rules to the Federal Register by January 29, 2018.

Landsat 8 image from June 21, 2014 showing the oil slick from the Taylor Energy site.

Taylor Energy (Site 23051) Cumulative Spill Report – 2017 Update

With President Trump preparing to open the Atlantic coastline to offshore drilling, we thought it would be a good time to revisit the cautionary tale of Site 23051 — Taylor Energy’s 13-year old continuous oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

We’ve estimated the cumulative amount of oil that has leaked from the Taylor Energy site since 2004, finding:

  1. Crude oil has been leaking continuously from this site for more than 13 years; and
  2. The estimated cumulative volume of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from this chronic leak over the period 2004 – 2017 now stands between 855,421 and 3,991,963 gallons.

BACKGROUND

The Taylor Energy site perfectly captures the dysfunction of offshore oil development: In 2004, an underwater mudslide caused by Hurricane Ivan toppled one of the company’s platforms and buried the damaged wells attached to it on the seafloor.  Reports of oil on the surface at the site of the wreckage followed shortly after and a secretive clean-up effort ensued.  

In 2008, after several failed attempts to stop the leaks and Taylor Energy’s decision to sell off all of its income-generating oil and gas assets in the Gulf, federal regulators ordered the company to post a $666.3 million security bond to ensure there was enough money to plug the wells and clean up remaining pollution.  

In  2010 and 2011, Taylor Energy used a leased drill rig called the Ocean Saratoga to slowly find and plug some of the damaged wells (only 9 of the 25 wells at the site have been plugged).  Additionally, three underwater containment domes and an underwater collection and containment system were put in place at the wellhead area to try and capture any remaining oil.

Taylor Energy’s next step was to sue the government to try and recover more than $400 million from the trust they had set up previously.  The lawsuit is in limbo amid negotiations over the company’s remaining responsibility and the feasibility of further clean-up. Documents filed by the Justice Department on December 15th revealed new evidence of two plumes of oil and gas resulting in an “ongoing oil release,” bringing some renewed hope Taylor Energy will be held accountable for its mess.

CUMULATIVE SPILL ESTIMATES

SkyTruth became aware of the chronic leak from the Taylor Energy site in 2010 while analyzing satellite imagery of the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster.  We’ve reported on slicks coming from the Taylor Energy site dozens of times in the years since, and in 2012 we released a cumulative spill report estimating that between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons of oil had leaked from the site since 2004.  But with offshore drilling in the Atlantic looming once again, we thought now would be a good time to revisit those calculations and reconsider the risks that offshore drilling poses for coastal communities.

Our initial report estimated the cumulative amount of oil that had leaked from the Taylor Energy site over the period 2004-2011. We’ve updated those calculations to include years 2012-2017, finding that:

  1. Crude oil has been leaking continuously from this site for more than 13 years; and
  2. The estimated cumulative volume of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from this chronic leak over the period 2004 – 2017 now stands between 855,421 and 3,991,963 gallons.

Our 2017 update uses the same methods outlined in our 2012 cumulative spill report. Our update analyzes the information contained in 2,719 public pollution reports filed with the National Response Center. Most reports were likely filed by Taylor Energy or their contractors covering 2,275 out of 4,852 days (just 47%) from the first report of oil at the site on September 17, 2004, through December 12, 2017.  We computed an ‘estimated average daily slick extent,’ and from that, we derived an ‘estimated average daily flow rate’ for each calendar year since the spill began.  Multiply the daily flow rate by the number of days the site has been leaking, and you have a rough estimate of the cumulative volume of the spill. For more on the methods, see our original report.  The data and analysis are accessible here.

In addition to our reliance on the accuracy of the pollution reports submitted by Taylor Energy, there are two assumptions we used to compute the average daily flow rate:

  • the average oil thickness in observable slicks; and
  • the average rate of degradation of an oil slick expressed as a half-life.

For average thickness, we used our conservative standard of 1 micron (1 millionth of a meter); we also computed everything using an even more conservative estimate of 0.5 microns to reflect the possibility that this slick is thinner than most.  For degradation half-life, we assumed that one half of a given amount of a thin slick of oil on the surface of the ocean would degrade in 3-7 days. We believe this range is a very conservative assumption because the longer the assumed lifetime of oil on the surface of the water, the lower the implied daily flow rate will be.

Combining all our data on slick extent with the high and low values for each of the key assumptions, we get four values for estimated cumulative oil spilled:

Half-life (Days) Thickness (Microns) Estimate (Gallons)
3 1.0 3,991,963
3 0.5 1,995,981
7 1.0 1,710,841
7 0.5 855,421

There is another potentially troubling trend in the data: since 2015, the average daily reported sheen extent has been significantly larger than in the past, while the number of pollution reports submitted to the NRC has come down.  

Average Daily Reported Sheen Extent
Year # of reports # of days with reports Average daily reported sheen extent (sq. miles)
2017 192 161 12.845
2016 176 147 14.351
2015 371 328 15.33
2014 346 314 4.423
2013 361 302 1.572
2012 323 309 0.337
2011 130 128 1.1
2010 167 164 1.7
2009 381 260 5.83
2008 272 162 2.73

On the one hand, these numbers could be the result of more diligent and accurate measurements made during routine monitoring and overflights, spurred in part by the public scrutiny this chronic leak has come under due to the work of SkyTruth and our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.  On the other hand, they could be the result of some qualitative change on the seafloor, in the damaged wells, or in the subsea reservoir that is allowing larger amounts of oil to leak out into the Gulf.

NEXT STEPS

The slight decrease in average reported sheen size over the past three years is somewhat encouraging: if the significant jump in 2015 was indeed due to more accurate reporting by Taylor Energy, then this recent downward trend could indicate the leaks are finally slowing.  But we are hampered by our dependence on observations and reports submitted by the responsible party, Taylor Energy.  These reports have been proven inaccurate, systematically underestimating the size of the slick by more than an order of magnitude compared with independent measurements based on direct observation of the slick on satellite imagery.  Direct, regular measurement and observation of the leak by a neutral party is crucial to understanding what is happening and predicting the likely future at this site. For this reason, we will continue our monitoring work.

 

 

 

More Oil Spotted at the Taylor Energy Site

We posted about a slick emanating from the Taylor Energy site on April 28th. And surprise, surprise a mere 12 days later, what should we see but yet another slick.

In 2008 Taylor Energy set aside over $600 million to pay for work related to the chronic leak that we have covered extensively since it came to our attention in 2010. As you can see in this image collected by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2 satellite, as well as in numerous other images we have collected, their work to date doesn’t seem to have stemmed the leak.

Sentinel 2 image collected of the Taylor Energy Site on May 8, 2017.

Which begs the question: why is Taylor suing the government to return the $432 million remaining in trust? That money was set aside for work that is yet to be finished. Why would they think they have earned it back?

More Offshore Drilling to Come?

Once again, the federal government is proposing that we expand offshore drilling to new areas in US waters.  Today, President Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of the Interior, which manages our public lands and waters, to review the Obama administration rule that deferred oil and gas leasing along the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.  People who could be affected by new drilling in those areas should consider that it’s not just the risk of the occasional major disaster they would be facing; it’s the chronic, day-to-day pollution accompanying offshore oil development that is systematically under-reported by industry and the government, the “death by 1,000 cuts” that is so easy to ignore.

Case in point: check out last night’s slick at the site of the chronic Taylor Energy oil spill in the Gulf:

Sentinel-1 radar satellite image showing oil slick caused by a chronic leak of oil from the seafloor at the Taylor Energy site, where an oil platform was destroyed by a hurricane in 2004.  Image acquired 4/27/2017 at about 7pm local time.

This Sentinel-1 image taken on April 27, 2017 shows an oil slick covering an area of 45.5 square kilometers (km2). Our calculations assume that oil slicks observable on satellite imagery have an average thickness of at least 1 micron (one millionth of a meter), so each km2 contains at least 264 gallons of oil. Multiply that by the area of 45.5 km2 and the Taylor slick shown in this image contains at least 12,012 gallons of oil.

This site has been leaking oil continuously into the Gulf since Hurricane Ivan came through and knocked over the Taylor Energy oil platform in September.  That’s September, 2004.  You can review the history of this site and see the hundreds of spill reports received and tracked on our Taylor Chronology page here. Until something is done to stop this leak, we’ll continue to monitor the site and keep you informed.

Bilge Dump? in Gulf of Mexico

Probable oil slicks on this Sentinel-1 radar satellite image, taken over the Taylor Energy site in the Gulf of Mexico at about 7:30 pm local time on February 14, caught our eye:

Sentinel-1 satellite radar image of the northern Gulf of Mexico, taken about 7:30 pm local time on February 14, 2017. Oil slicks are dark streaks. Ships and oil/gas platforms are bright spots. South Pass of the Mississippi Delta is at left. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

As usual, we can see a 9-mile-long slick emanating from that chronic oil leak that has been spilling oil continuously since 2004. The Taylor slick is drifting straight to the northeast away from the leak source on the seafloor.  But the image is dominated by a thicker-looking 28-mile-long slick closer to shore. It seems to almost hook up with the Taylor slick on it’s east end, suggesting it could be a major continuation of the Taylor slick.  This would make it one of the biggest slicks at Taylor we’ve ever observed; and if it is the Taylor slick, it makes a very unusual 180 degree turn.  That’s possible, given the complex currents:  outflow from the Mississippi River meets eddies spinning off the Gulf Stream, creating strong horizontal “shears” where the current on one side can be moving in a very different direction than on the other.  But there may be a simpler explanation: this could be an oily slick caused by intentional bilge dumping from a moving vessel.  Based on how the slick appears to be more pushed around by wind and current as you follow it back to the east, I’m guessing the vessel was moving from east to west, working its way around the tip of the Mississippi Delta parallel to shore.

Image above, labeled to identify oil slicks and the location of the chronic Taylor Energy leak. Possible vessel near west end of bilge slick marked by yellow circle. Sentinel-1 satellite radar image courtesy European Space Agency.

Dumping oily bilge is illegal in US waters, and we don’t often see this here — although it is a big problem elsewhere.  In this case, checking against our daily stream of Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship-tracking data, we haven’t been able to identify a possible culprit. There is a small bright spot near the west end of the slick that is probably a small vessel — there are no platforms or other structures at this location. This could be the culprit.  But it wasn’t broadcasting an AIS signal.

Detail from above, showing probable vessel located near west end of bilge slick. Is this the culprit? Sentinel-1 satellite radar image courtesy European Space Agency.

 

2016 – The Good, the Bad, and the Future

2016 has been a very mixed year for the environment. Despite some positive developments for conservation over the past year, there are even greater threats to public and ecological health looming on the horizon. We have a lot of work ahead of us in 2017, but your support can help us continue to hold government and industry accountable in the new year (while giving you a break on your taxes for 2016).

Over the past year, documents came to light proving that federal officials made misleading and unsubstantiated edits to a major report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the threats posed by hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking). SkyTruth was among the first in 2015 to specifically identify the inconsistencies in the draft report, but at least the final report more accurately quantifies the extent of known cases of contamination from fracking. However, while low oil and gas prices have slowed some of the push for new fracking and drilling, pipelines have emerged as a new point of contention. The Army Corps of Engineers has delayed approving a river crossing for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, but as we wrote this month there are many more pipeline projects underway – all of them posing risks to public safety, clean air, and clean water.

Above: Footage from the 2010 Enbridge Oil Spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.
via Gfycat

Off the coast of the United States, President Obama recently withdrew millions of acres of Arctic and Atlantic waters from offshore drilling. This environmental victory is the result of numerous environmental campaigns over many years, including our efforts to document the risks and accidents associated with new drilling. Additionally, President Obama is moving quickly to protect some areas from new offshore oil drilling before Donald Trump takes office in January 2017. We’ve already documented some of Exxon’s drilling activity in Russian Arctic waters (below), but we will have to be even more vigilant if ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson becomes Secretary of State.

Unfortunately, little has changed in the Gulf of Mexico where even after a court settlement negotiated by our partners at the Waterkeeper Alliance, Taylor Energy platform #23051 continues to leak. Taylor Energy, however, is now reneging on their responsibility to contain the ongoing leak, and is suing the federal government to recover $423 million out of $666 million which they were compelled set aside for cleanup and containment.

In July, a federal appeals court again upheld an EPA decision to revoke a massive mountaintop mine expansion permit in Logan County, West Virginia. The EPA decision was supported by scientific studies on the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining, some directly informed by SkyTruth’s satellite derived mountaintop removal footprint data. Yet across Appalachia, Trump and other pro-coal politicians won overwhelmingly on the promise of bringing back coal jobs. These promises likely mean decrease in regulatory oversight and cutting enforcement capability, so we will need satellites and citizen scientists to be even more vigilant.

Out at sea, things have been looking up. In partnership with Google and Oceana and with keynote addresses from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and actor/ocean advocate Leonardo DiCaprio, we officially launched the first public version of Global Fishing Watch. Our work using satellite data to track suspicious vessel activity on the open ocean has been chronicled in the New York Times Magazine, helped bust a Chinese fleet illegally using drift-nets in the southern Indian Ocean, and prompted the government of Belize to halt seismic testing around a protected reef – sending an oil and gas survey vessel packing. But we can’t do it alone, which is why we are making tools like Global Fishing Watch open to the public for all to use.

On November 9, 2016, the day after the U.S. elections made it clear that we will be facing at least four years of a pro-drilling, pro-mining, anti-regulation Administration, SkyTruth President John Amos wrote:

We believe governments and businesses work better to protect the environment, and to ensure human health and well being, when the consequences of their action and inaction are plain for all to see. Persistent public vigilance has always been necessary for a functioning democracy. It’s especially crucial when governments are disdainful of environmental protection and public health and safety, dismissive of science-based decisionmaking with public participation, and openly hostile toward the public ownership and long-term stewardship of our lands and waters.

This means we need you. We need your support, your engagement, and your vigilance. If you can see it, you can change it.

 

Will Taylor Energy Response Offer Any New Answers?

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 12.02.11 PM

Undated photo of Taylor Energy Platform #23051 before it was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Image Credit – Taylor Energy
Today, Jan. 20, Taylor Energy will host a public forum in Baton Rouge, La., to explain what efforts they have taken to respond to the ongoing oil spill in Mississippi Canyon Block 20 (MC-20) – the former site of Taylor Energy Platform #23051. Over eleven years ago Hurricane Ivan triggered a subsea landslide which destroyed the platform and buried 28 wells under a hundred or more feet of mud and sediment. The spill first came to public attention during the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, when GMC charter member SkyTruth observed the leak on satellite imagery and began investigating with GMC assets in the air and on the surface.

SkyTruth-21jun2014-L8-Taylor-slick
 
Above: Landsat 8 image from June 2014; one many satellite observations SkyTruth has catalogued over the past eleven years. 
 

Oil still leaks from the site to this day, eleven miles off the coast of Louisiana, while the now-idled company’s efforts to stop the leak have remained a carefully guarded secret. In early 2015, an AP investigation pressed the U.S. Coast Guard to increase their estimated spill rate to an amount 20x higher than Taylor had ever acknowledged. In Sept. 2015, GMC partners, including the Waterkeeper Alliance, settled a law suit over the company’s lack of transparency about efforts to fix the leak. This forum was a condition of that settlement.

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium has the following questions for Taylor Energy, which, in one presentation posted in advance to the forum’s website called the events surrounding Hurricane Ivan, an “Act of God“.

1) What is the plan to stop this leak?

2) If the plan is to just let it go for the next 100 years, what research has been done to determine that the environmental harm would be minimal and acceptable? Why wasn’t the public involved in that decision making?

3) What lessons were learned and are they being applied to new permitting and drilling in the Gulf?

  • What do we know about slope stability and the risk of slope failure throughout the Gulf, especially in deepwater; and is that risk being incorporated into engineering and permitting?
  • What is the plan if a similar fate befalls a deepwater platform with 20 high-pressure producing oil wells?
  • What systems are in place to successfully shut in those wells in the event of a slope failure?

4) What is the estimated cost to the public of the lost oil and gas revenue if the decision is made to let the reservoir bleed out?

5) What were the various interventions that were deployed on the seafloor to try to capture the leaking oil and gas? How much oil and gas did they capture, and during what time periods? What was done with the captured oil and gas?

To attend, the public is asked to register.

LOCATION:Louisiana State University
Pennington Biomedical Research Center
Building “G”
6400 Perkins Rd
Baton Rouge, LA 70808 

DATE & TIME:9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
January 20, 2016