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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 [link to archived version on the Wayback Machine]

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

From the Bird’s Foot to the Dogsleg: 2015 in Review

Our most recent trip around the sun was filled with growth and major (positive!) impact for the environment, so we’re inviting you to share in our success. Of course, SkyTruth is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit, so your tax-deductible donation before midnight tomorrow will reduce your 2015 tax bill and help us keep a sharp eye on the world in 2016.

Offshore Energy: For eleven years oil has leaked into the Gulf of Mexico from a point eleven miles off the Mississippi River Delta (aka the Bird’s Foot Delta). Our dogged reporting of this slow-motion oil spill finally caught the attention of the Associated Press. Their investigation ultimately pushed the U.S. Coast Guard to acknowledge a spill rate 20x higher than Taylor Energy had ever admitted. Then in September, Taylor Energy settled a lawsuit brought by the Waterkeeper Alliance and several of our other Gulf Coast partners over lack of transparency about what the company had done to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In recognition of the five-year anniversary of the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, we mapped the nearly 10,000 reported oil and chemical spills that have occurred in the Gulf since the oil stopped gushing from the Macondo well in 2010. Once it became apparent that a Coast Guard database we relied on for daily pollution reports would be offline for the indefinite future, our programming team engineered a way to convert their weekly data dumps back into the SkyTruth Alerts you know and love. 

Fracking: We’ve continued our work to map the footprint of drilling and fracking in the mid-Atlantic using aerial imagery and geospatial data. On one very seasonally-themed map we mapped the spooky spread of drilling in Ohio’s Utica Shale, while below we animated a visualization of the drilling boom in western Pennsylvania using your FrackFinder results.

Also of note, the oil and gas industry finally gave in this year on a transparency issue we’ve pursued since 2012. In May, FracFocus.org unlocked access to tens of thousands of fracking chemical records regarding drilling operations across the US. Industry proudly proclaims that they did this voluntarily, but judge for yourself if you think they would have unlocked this data without our persistence over the past three years

Coal and Metal Mining: This summer in Colorado contractors for the EPA accidentally triggered a spill of polluted water from an inactive gold mine, turning the Animas River orange for miles. To provide some context on the problem of abandoned mine lands in the US, we compiled a couple of interactive maps to help visualize at least some of the abandoned coal mines and inactive metal mines in the US.

Later this year a dam at an iron mine in Brazil collapsed, destroying an entire town, killing 17 people, and displacing hundreds more. We used satellite imagery to investigate the impacts of the disaster, and published imagery showing the developments leading up to the catastrophe. Unfortunately, as we wrote this month, this kind of spill from mine waste impoundments is all too common around the world.

Fishing/Marine Conservation: While our programming team is hard at work developing the Global Fishing Watch platform to help tackle the ecological crisis of overfishing, we’ve also come across some major cases of maritime malfeasance.

In January we stayed up late to help the government of Palau catch the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33, a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel caught in their waters, and according to official reports had shark fins and illegally caught tuna in her holds. A few months later, after monitoring the movements of a Thai-flagged cargo vessel suspected of “transshipping” with vessels crewed by slave labor, we helped the Associated Press acquire this satellite image. The image (above) shows the Silver Sea 2 tied up with two unidentified fishing vessels in the “Dogsleg” region of Papua New Guinea’s territorial waters

This summer a film crew for National Geographic came to the office to learn more about what we are doing for marine conservation and how fishing transparency can encourage more sustainable fisheries management:

Over the course of 2015, the New York Times launched a now six-part series on the “Outlaw Ocean“, kicking it off with a globe-trotting investigation of the Dona Liberta. If you recall,the Dona Liberta (now known as the Sea Pearl) is a scofflaw cargo ship first spotted by SkyTruth back in 2012 off the coast of Angola at the end of an oily-slick approx. 90 miles long. 

Technology Won’t Save the Planet. You Will.

In 2015 we welcomed three new full-time members to our team, as well as two part-time programmers. Our staff traveled from Chile to Lisbon to talk about Global Fishing Watch, shared our big ideas for conservation at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and convened with mapping and remote sensing experts at Google’s GeoForGood and CartoDB’s State of the Map conference in NYC. Your tax-deductible contribution will help us continue to keep an eagle-eye on the planet and continue to share our vision for a better world. 

As John said last month at the WWF Fuller Symposium at National Geographic, “The answer to the question, ‘Will technology save the planet?’ is clearly ‘no’ — people will save the planet, but technology will give them the inspiration and the tools…”

Now it’s your turn. Subscribe to Alerts, sign up to be a volunteer for FrackFinder WV coming in early 2016, or donate. Thank you!

 

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Politicians Defend Taylor Energy While Their Gulf Oil Leak Continues

Predictably, some Louisiana lawmakers (is that really a good way to describe these folks?) are rushing to defend the now-defunct Taylor Energy company which, according to ex-Senator Mary Landrieu, should be “commended for its diligent, collaborative, and environmentally responsible work on this matter.” 

“This matter” is a chronic leak that’s been pouring crude oil continuously into the Gulf for almost 11 years, and shows no signs of tapering off.  Taylor Energy has declared — apparently with no explanation or corroboration by independent experts — there is nothing they can do, that wouldn’t cause worse harm to the environment.  Federal officials estimate the leak will continue for another 100 years, until the reservoir is tapped out.  

Here’s a satellite image of the Taylor site just a few miles off the coast of the Mississippi Delta, showing a 21-mile-long slick extending northeast from the location of the buried, leaking wells.   It was shot from NASA’s EO-1 satellite on July 3, using the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) instrument.  It has some remarkable detail: a thin sheen, slightly darker than the adjacent Gulf waters, surrounding a thin pale-blue streak that indicates oil thick enough to have the distinct reflectance signature characteristic of crude oil.  We estimate the sheen is, on average, 1 micron (one millionth of a meter) thick.  The pale-blue core is much thicker, perhaps millimeters thick.  This is consistent with direct observations and sampling of the Taylor slick conducted by researchers from Florida State University last summer.  

Detail from July 3, 2015 ALI satellite image of Taylor Energy site showing 21-mile-long slick trailing off to the northeast. Note the line of small, scattered cumulus clouds and their matching shadows that seems to follow the slick (water particles forming around aerosols caused by evaporating hydrocarbons?).  

 

Same as above, with our analysis of the slick extent (yellow overlay).  Slick covers 30.7 square kilometers. 

Using our conservative rule of thumb — that a slick observable on satellite imagery is, on average, at least one micron thick — we calculate the 21-mile-long Taylor slick on July 3 represents at least 8,100 gallons of crude oil.  And what did Taylor Energy report to the Coast Guard that same day? A slick 12 miles long containing 71 gallons.

Commendable indeed.

MODIS satellite image taken the same day (July 3, 2015).  Sunglint patterns and various types of clouds make for a visually complicated image, but theTaylor slick appears as a pale line the same size, shape and orientation as in the more detailed ALI imagery above.  Red dots indicate locations of oil spill reports submitted to the National Response Center (NRC) over the previous few weeks. The loose cluster of reports about 20 miles northeast of the Taylor Energy leak site suggests that those observers are sighting the far end of the Taylor slick.