Friday, April 29, 2011

Gulf Oil Shouldn’t Spill Beneath the Radar

Gulf Oil Shouldn’t Spill Beneath the Radar: "

A year after the Deepwater Horizon blowout sent 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, smaller leaks still bubble across the Gulf — but unlike big spills, they’re largely ignored.

A nonprofit organization called SkyTruth, which uses public and commercial satellite imagery to assess environmental damage, recently added airplanes and ships to its Gulf monitoring. But the group can still investigate just a tiny fraction of spills and leaks that may be reported, underreported or not reported at all by oil companies.

SkyTruth founder John Amos, a geologist and a former oil-company research scientist, thinks roughly $3 million per year could buy the necessary data and provide the first continuous, accurate assessment of Gulf oil pollution.

“The oil industry has done a great job convincing the public that modern drilling pollution is nonexistent. But we’ve discovered wells damaged by hurricanes in 2005 that are still leaking,” said Amos, who may have caught an oil company grossly under-reporting one of its leaks. “We have some tools available to do investigations, but in many cases it’s just not enough. For smaller spills, we need an up-close look from satellite imagery.”

In some ways, the Gulf may be better adapted to oil pollution than other regions. Crude oil seeps naturally from its ocean floor, and oil-digesting bacteria help evaporation and storms break down the crude. But the amount of oil added by human activities may be immense: 20,000 miles of pipelines cross the Gulf’s bottom, and 3,600 holes have been drilled.

More than half the equipment is 20 years old or older, and platforms built in the 1940s are still in operation. It’s only a matter of time before another big spill, said Amos, but smaller leaks may already outpace nature’s cleanup abilities.

‘All of the technology and infrastructure we need to detect very small leaks and spills exists. But we don’t have the funding. All we can do for now is identify high-priority targets.’

The best system the U.S. Coast Guard has to monitor thousands of square miles of oil-rich shores, called the National Response Center, or NRC, relies almost entirely on oil-company reports.

“Oil polluters are assessed fines based on the quantity of oil spilled, which they’re required by law to report. But far offshore, out of sight of land, who has the resources to go out and check if it’s really a 0.7-gallon spill?” Amos said. “It’s a system ripe for abuse, and I don’t think it’s really informing us about the state of what offshore pollution actually is.”

University of Miami marine physicist Hans Graber — leader of the university’s Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing, or CSTARS, which provided the U.S. government with 120 days of near-real-time Deepwater Horizon assessment — agrees.

“We really have no idea,” said Graber. “I doubt even the oil companies know how much in total is leaking from their own platforms.”

Earth-monitoring satellite programs like Landsat provide free imagery to the public, but at a resolution too low to spot small leaks. Clouds can also block the view.

Some satellites, however, can “see” in infrared, microwave and even radar wavelengths. Radar is especially helpful in detecting oil slicks, because it’s sensitive to physical changes on the ocean surface, cuts through clouds, and takes photos at night as well as day.

Unfortunately, there’s no free, publicly available radar satellite imagery. Commercial companies operate radar satellites, and their data commands a high price.

“All of the technology and infrastructure we need to detect very small leaks and spills exists. But we don’t have the funding. All we can do for now is identify high-priority targets in the NRC data,” Amos said.

Amos said he’s in negotiations with a radar satellite company to improve SkyTruth’s remot-sensing options, but he envisions an even more robust collaboration with CSTARS. Amos and Graber think it would cost about $3 million to keep high-resolution eyes on the entire Gulf.

“No one I know has ever done something like that,” said Graber, who joked that the cost was on par with an oil company’s holiday party.

An artist's depiction of a Landsat Earth-monitoring satellite. Although the public Landsat program provides free image data, only one satellite launched in 1984 is still fully functional. Image:

Why oil companies haven’t already pursued this option, which represents a paltry sum in comparison to the Gulf of Mexico’s $150 billion-per-year oil revenues, mystifies geophysicist Bob Vincent of Bowling Green University, a specialist in remote sensing.

“Polluters absolutely have the most to gain. If they know about the leaks, they can repair them, save precious oil, and prevent cleanup costs and fines, which can be astronomically high,” Vincent said. “This would help their bottom line. It’s baffling why they haven’t been putting the pedal to the metal on public monitoring since Day One.”

But Amos suspects letting many smaller leaks go is cheaper than high-tech fixes. Lax accountability lets oil companies underreport pollution and evade high fines and cleanup costs.

Fears of bad public relations and legal action may also blockade goodwill efforts by oil companies to support robust monitoring.

“Oil companies should behave like good citizens, but with everything that’s happened they’re now afraid of it being seen as an admission of improper practices,” Graber said. “They don’t want the public or lawyers to use it against them.”

If oil companies won’t voluntarily pay for the cost of buying images, lawmakers could draft legislation to make them.

“The money could come from academia, nongovernmental organizations or the government. It doesn’t matter. Let’s bring more tools and horsepower to the table that will help everyone, including oil companies and the Coast Guard,” Amos said. “I don’t see this as an advocacy platform. It’s purely about gathering, analyzing and publishing information that we can’t get reliably any other way.”

—— contacted Exxon Mobil, BP Global and Shell Oil, all of which use offshore Gulf oil platforms and were named by the sources in this story. BP and Shell responded before publication, but said there wasn’t time for an appropriate response.

Oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico, color-coded according to depth. Map: U.S. Department of the Interior.

Top image: CSTARS-gathered satellite imagery covers eastern Texas to northwestern Florida during the Deepwater Horizon blowout. A typical day of monitoring used more than a dozen images collected by up to eight satellites. (CSTARS/University of Miami/Hans Graber/Google)


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