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2015 April 26
Coastal waters of Louisiana
Gulf of Mexico

by Bonny L. Schumaker, Ph.D.1

 

Why have we tolerated a continuous major oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico for over a decade?
-- The Findings of Taylor Energy and Failures of the U.S. Coast Guard


CONTENTS

Introduction and Summary
The mistakes, and what is at stake
Hurricane Ivan and the Central Planning Area
Decades of carelessness
Amount of Material:  Careless reporting or deliberate deception?
What to do



INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY

Ten miles offshore from the tip of Louisiana, in water less than 500 feet deep, lies a grim reminder that while nature gives to man freely, carelessness injures both man and nature.  Almost every day for the past decade, enough crude oil has leaked from the damaged seafloor here to render at least five hundred million gallons of sea water toxic to life. That’s enough poisoned water to fill 150 football fields to one-foot depth, every day.  These deadly waters cannot be  contained and do not remain stationary.  They follow currents and tidelines, like deadly predators silently stalking the marine life that they poison and will ultimately kill. 

Crude oil is so potent that even a minute concentration of one part per million can severely sicken or kill life. Its most toxic components, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), can persist in seawater for many years. They destroy red blood cells, alter liver metabolism, damage gland tissue, and interrupt the cellular pathways that control the beating of hearts. Ingestion causes cancer, DNA damage, and multi-generational birth defects. On contact, crude oil burns skin and dissolves easily into tissue. It suffocates fish by causing a mucus film to form over their bodies and gills, and it smothers benthic invertebrates such as oysters. 

In one pernicious way or another, crude oil causes premature and painful death to all life it touches.  Not just when it first appears, and not even just linearly with exposure time, but exponentially.  After long enough continued exposure, there are no longer enough healthy individuals to regenerate, and the local species of marine life disappear.

The photos below were taken on the 18th of June, 2014, almost a year ago. Note the sampling boat with scientists aboard, in the middle of the photo. They are surrounded by what OWOC estimated to be about 850 acres of sheen with 30% coverage, exhibiting most of the “colors” of sheen that we have seen in the Gulf of Mexico: silvery, rainbow, metallic, transitional dark, as well as streamers of emulsion.  OWOC estimated the amount of oil to be at least 200 gallons.  The same day, Taylor reported the amount of material associated with this sheen to be 0.34 gallons — about five cups. The scientists in the boat felt sick from the fumes; but afterward, we all felt sick to think that the Coast Guard would believe that all of that oil amounted to one-third of a gallon. (Photos courtesy of OnWingsOfCare.org and Oscar Pineda-Garcia.)



Since the 1980s, permits have been issued to drill oil wells in this area without due consideration for the soil stability, storm patterns, and prudent numbers or arrangements of wells. With the many tropical storms and hurricanes that rage toward land every summer from the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster was set to happen; and in 2004, Hurricane Ivan delivered the fateful blow.  Since then, all efforts to plug, relieve, or contain the leaks have failed.

The U.S. Coast Guard named as Responsible Party the Taylor Energy Company (“Taylor”), lessee and platform owner in 2004. They issued a formal Notice of Federal Interest to Taylor  in February 2005, then another one in July of 2008, citing that because there had been an increase ““in frequency and quantity of oil spills at the site as well as… pollution point sources, it has been determined that the spill poses a significant threat to the environment” (emphasis added).
They directed Taylor to provide regular aerial observational reports of the “amount of material” comprising observed surface sheen in the area, which the Coast Guard publishes through their National Response Center (NRC).

It is not clear just how the Coast Guard was monitoring Taylor’s success at stopping the pollution in MC20 previously, as in the three and one-half years from Hurricane Ivan until June of 2008, only 10 NRC reports were submitted for MC20. What is clear is that since 2005, the Coast Guard has collected incomplete data; accepted incorrect statements and conclusions; ignored facts, advice, and expert assistance from other entities including citizens; and withheld accurate information from the public. 

Perplexed by the continuing unreasonably low estimates for the amounts of observed oil in these reports, the author undertook to compare those estimates with other available observational data on MC20 and also to re-calculate the Taylor estimates using the Coast Guard’s own standard for aerial assessment of open water oil sheens, the so-called “Bonn” or “BAOAC” guidelines.2 It didn’t take long to recognize that the Coast Guard has allowed the fox to guard the chicken coop and is neither watching the fox nor heeding warnings from good neighbors. 

But is it really surprising that government has not been more forceful or effective in its efforts to prevent such pollution “incidents”?  To them, these waters are minerals, which they own and which they allow companies to harvest, in return for royalties.  For our government, the primary casualty of an accidental “spill” is a temporary drop in royalties. Income from fines assigned to the Responsible Parties under the Clean Water Act may be used to appease the citizens, but the government’s primary interest is revenue, and that is best gained by letting the Responsible Parties get back to the business of “mining.”

The NRC reports filed by Taylor, which to date number 1,958 since they began in spring of 2008, have understated the amount of oil present in the surface sheen by more than an order of magnitude compared to realistic amounts implied by observations from independent credible sources, such as NOAA and the author’s non-profit On Wings Of Care (OWOC).3  The inaccurate reports from Taylor continue to be published by the Coast Guard, unchallenged, despite the fact that the primary fault in their estimates is failure to use the Coast Guard’s own adopted standard. When the Taylor estimates are re-calculated using the Bonn guidelines, they increase by about a factor of 12.  But the Taylor estimates appear to be even more wrong than that.

Independent observations by OWOC, made approximately monthly since mid-2011, suggest amounts about 25 times larger than Taylor’s reported average daily amounts for the same days — 500 vs. 20 gallons per day.  The average and median sheen areas for OWOC and Taylor on the same days are within 30% of each other, so the discrepancy stems primarily from assumptions about sheen thickness, and much less from reported sheen area or coverage.4

NOAA’s detailed reports from their satellite and information service (NESDIS) give average daily sheen areas about 5 times larger than Taylor’s reported areas on the same days (18,000 vs. 4,000 acres). While satellite instruments can discern exceedingly thin sheen, even if the average thickness over the entire area they observe is assumed to be no more than a mere 0.04 micron — the minimum observable to aircraft per the Bonn guidelines — then the NOAA-derived estimates of amount of oil would still be more than 50 times higher than Taylor’s estimates.

The Coast Guard’s NRC reports include no estimation for amounts of material from the OWOC, NOAA, or any other independent observations. Despite the detailed descriptions that would permit such estimate, for observations from sources other than Taylor, the NRC reports lists the amount of material as “zero” or “unknown.”

The implications of under-estimating the amount of crude oil pollution in a marine environment are much more grave than mere financial or other potential civil penalties to the responsible parties.  When the poisoning to a marine ecosystem continues for many generations of its species, there is increasingly less chance of recovery to normal healthy populations, even if the poisoning stops. Leakages of crude oil that exceed the minimal amounts that an ecosystem has adapted to handle must be stopped as promptly as possible, for if it continues, the ecosystem damage can become irreversible. Other marine life may pass through the area again, but the local food chain could take many decades to recover, if it can recover at all.

The Taylor NRC reports exhibit alarming discrepancies and inconsistencies. More than 50% of them describe the sheen as “barely discernible.”  Only 16% of their reports have ever noted the presence of any rainbow or even faintly colored sheen.  In contrast, more than 90% of independent observations made on average monthly since mid-2011 have found extensive amounts of rainbow and thicker sheen in MC20. (See photos and links to videos provided below.)  If all observations by Taylor Energy over the past seven-plus years have found the oily sheen to be this imperceptible, how have other observers taken such dramatic videos and photos of ugly rainbow sheen and weathered oil stretching along tidelines for miles and miles?

Another 9% of Taylor’s reports have no description of the sheen at all and yet give a nonzero estimate for amount of material. (How do they do that?)  And another 4% conveniently note “zero” for the amount of material even though the data on sheen size and color would imply a substantial amount of material.  These statistics and others are summarized in the “Statistics” spreadsheet and graphically in the “Charts”, which are included here as separate links for viewing or downloading.

When reports are filed with the Coast Guard’s NRC, observers are not requested to provide estimates of material amount. That is understandable, although ideally all observers would be instructed by the Coast Guard in what data needs to be noted carefully. But it is not understandable that the Coast Guard does not assess reports promptly to infer their implied amounts of material and their credibility, particularly for reports well documented with photos and videos.

Reform is needed to the way in which the Coast Guard manages pollution incidents.  Since the deleterious effects of pollution to marine ecosystems grow exponentially with time, effective action must be taken promptly to remedy substantial ongoing leakage.  Accurate assessment of the amount of pollution is essential. To that end, the NRC reporting system needs to be organized more efficiently for intake and analysis of data, with better guidelines given to all observers who report data.  Aerial observations should provide the data needed to calculate the area of the sheen and percent coverage by different types (thicknesses) of sheen. For estimates of material involved, assumptions for nominal thicknesses of different types of sheen should be explicit.  Documentation with photos and videos is helpful for resolving discrepancies among different observations and for concluding meaningful estimates of material amount and nature, such as whether the oil is fresh or weathered.  It is imperative that observations and analyses be carried out by skilled entities who are independent of the responsible parties, and careful assessment of the amount of pollution material should be an ongoing priority.

Prevention of offshore pollution incidents must be made a much higher priority for all parties.  Drilling permits for offshore oil and gas activities should not be issued without satisfactory appraisals of the geophysical, operational, and other risks and all mitigation practicable.  A system of checks and balances on both industry and government is needed, and those must include a vehicle whereby citizen entities who are independent of the responsible parties have the insight, roles, and advisory authority to help ensure offshore safety and protection of our waters.  For that, the author strongly supports the mechanism of a regional citizens’ advisory council (RCAC) like those that have proven so successful in Alaska since the Exxon Valdez accident 25 years ago.


THE MISTAKES, AND WHAT IS AT STAKE

Off the tip of Louisiana, the muddy green waters fed by the final gasps of the mighty Mississippi River used to be a rich ecosystem of plankton, fish, dolphin, and seabirds. They were the bountiful feeding grounds for many, including human fishermen whose families have lived here for generations.  Here, when seas were calm, you could see dorsal fins moving to and fro, bait balls glistening, sea turtles floating, and schools of golden rays gliding smoothly in formation.  As in these photos, taken in similar coastal waters south of the Atchafalaya Basin just four years ago.




But these days, in an area now larger than 100 square miles and beginning just a few miles from shore, from the air we see only streamers and lines and patches and expanses of oily sheen.  Some of the sheen is thick and dark and brown, some of it is a deadly rainbow, and some of it is an eerie, iridescent silver.  It would almost be beautiful, if it didn’t kill all the life that it touches, and if only life were still visible. 

The noxious plumes of crude oil that rise steadily from the damaged seafloor and leave their shiny traces here on the water’s surface are not small natural seeps like those that exist in areas of  deeper water farther offshore, with which marine life has co-existed for eons.  These deadly streams are a result of man’s careless disregard for the facts of nature. They persist not because we cannot understand how to work with nature, but because those who have had authority to oversee offshore oil and gas activities and to prevent and address pollution incidents like this have been irresponsible.

Not all of us have warm and fuzzy feelings about copepods or zooplankton or corals or sargassum, but they are parts of the foundation of survival for more familiar marine life on whom we depend for our lives and look to as indicators of the health of our own food chains.  When unnaturally massive doses of crude oil and gas poison and destroy these fundamental beings, the devastation ripples inexorably up the food chain.  And this is why “dilution” is no solution to pollution in our oceans. People are the only solution.

Hurricane Ivan didn’t destroy this flourishing ecosystem; we did. We tapped deep into the ground and brought up our poisonous bounty, and we failed to ensure that in the process we would not poison the sea. Then, after we did, the responsible parties combined — whoever they may be in fact — have failed to stop the continuing pollution. What is sure is that the Coast Guard has collected incomplete data; accepted incorrect statements and conclusions; ignored facts, advice, and expert assistance from other entities including citizens; and withheld accurate information from the public. In this, they have added insult to injury.

We all want to believe that the errors by government agencies and the oil industry that contributed to this pollution catastrophe and its continuance for over a decade have been corrected. But scrutiny of evidence from the Coast Guard since 2004 proves the opposite.  Oil has continued almost without pause to leak from the seafloor at a rate sufficient to cause permanent and lethal damage to marine life.  It took until 2011 for well intervention to succeed in the plugging and abandonment of nine of the wells, but 16 remain unplugged.  Expert consensus is that the soil is too unstable to risk further intervention.  Three containment domes installed in April 2009 were disconnected in 2012 due to subsidence around one of the domes.  The Coast Guard directed Taylor to design a new pollution dome system, but Taylor’s stand was that there exists no design to eliminate all surface sheen from the soft soil that is now so contaminated with hydrocarbons. Two years ago, they reactivated the containment dome system, but sheen has never completely disappeared and has been increasing since early 2014.

Here is a photo (courtesy of the Coast Guard) of containment domes like those used by Taylor Energy to mitigate pollution in the MC20 area. Next to it is a photo of a typical sight from an airplane over the “source” point at MC20, which regularly produces a definite sheet of rainbow sheen. On a day with fairly calm seas, one can see the oil-coated gas bubbles where this oil first reaches the surface from 500 feet below.




As Taylor and the Coast Guard went back to the drawing board to design a way to contain the leaking oil, meetings among government and industry experts failed to come up with a solution. By late 2013, only two options were considered (further well intervention having been ruled out):  Dredge the area to remove pollutants, or do nothing.  Dredging was pretty much ruled out due to the risk of causing more oil to be released that is now trapped in sediment.  Those who argued for doing nothing maintained that “persistent light sheen does not have appreciable impact on coastal or local ecology, because surface feeders and marine mammals can just push the oil out of the way.”  Alas, we would sooner deny the consequences of our errors than alter lucrative habits.  What fools greed makes of us.

So the Coast Guard directed Taylor Energy (the “Responsible Party”) to design and provide a means to stop the polluting, and then they also directed Taylor Energy to monitor and report back on their progress. To that end, in 2008, when the Coast Guard first directed Taylor Energy to install containment domes, they also directed Taylor  to conduct twice-daily overflights to monitor the discharge and to report their observations back to the Coast Guard.  From 2009 through 2011, Taylor provided those flights and reports to the Coast Guard on average only once every other day, but since 2012 almost daily. 

The Coast Guard collects, compiles, and publishes the data from these observations that Taylor provides to them through their National Response Center (NRC).  If the Coast Guard makes it own overflights to monitor the pollution, apparently they don’t publish those observations, because 95% of all reports about Mississippi Canyon Lease Block Number 20 — “MC20” — are submitted by Taylor Energy, while the other 5% come from NOAA’s NESDIS satellite information service or independent citizens and citizen groups groups such as the author’s non-profit On Wings Of Care, Inc. (OWOC), which provides and publishes aerial surveys of oil and marine life in the Gulf of Mexico on a regular basis.

Here are a few of the many “faces” of MC20 in photos taken between autumn 2012 and autumn 2014. Many more photos and videos are shown in a gallery below giving a history in photos of the MC20 pollution site. (Photos courtesy of On Wings Of Care, Inc.)


The Coast Guard’s NRC reports are not organized efficiently. Our search for all reports of pollution in MC20 should have been straightforward but instead was arduous.5  Although NOAA and the Coast Guard have long since adopted the international BAOAC (Bonn) guidelines for estimating sheen thickness from appearance in aerial observations, the NRC website provides no information related to those guidelines nor about what observational data must be provided in order to make accurate estimates for the amounts of material. The Bonn guidelines are obviously not being used for the estimates of material amounts that are present in the reports provided by Taylor Energy.

The amount of material associated with a sheen area is estimated by multiplying together the observed sheen area with an assumed thickness based on the appearance of the sheen. If the sheen does not cover the reported area uniformly, then the area is multiplied by the percent coverage, giving an equivalent hypothetical smaller area over which the same total amount of sheen would be spread uniformly.  The Taylor reports do not specify what sheen thicknesses they assume for their estimates of the amount of material, and in the vast majority of their reports no percent coverage is noted. We can infer the equivalent sheen thickness that they assumed simply by calculating the ratio of their reported sheen area (in acres) to their estimated amount of material (in gallons, with a small factor of 1.069 to account for these non-metric units).  

The Bonn guidelines specify a range of possible thicknesses for the lightest sheen discernible from the air, namely 0.04—0.30 micron, which will appear as a very light to silvery gray, without colors for it is too thin to manifest thin-layer reflection interference of light.  (For readers who like visual pictures, 0.04 micron is a few ten-thousandths of the diameter of a typical human hair, or about one-tenth the wavelength of blue light.)

On average, about 95% of the Taylor reports estimate an amount of material and sheen area and percent coverage  that correspond to an assumed equivalent average sheen thickness of less than 0.04 micron.  When reports consistently give equivalent thicknesses this low, when so many photographs document the presence of substantial amounts of rainbow and thicker sheen, serious questions should be raised to the observers or to the estimators.

More than 50% of the Taylor estimates correspond to an assumed equivalent average thickness smaller than 0.01 micron, with no description of the sheen except “barely discernible.”  In 93% of OWOC’s observations, substantial amounts of rainbow or heavier sheen was documented in photos and videos,  and 50% of those days were days when Taylor reported the sheen as “barely discernible.” (We have yet to see them out there flying, by the way.)  A whopping 15% of all Taylor reports correspond to a sheen thinner than 0.003 micron. That is comparable to the distance taken up by just ten molecules of water placed end to end.  There were 70 such anomalous reports in 2014 alone, and they have been a persistent 5—35% of all Taylor reports every year since 2008.

But it gets even worse!  Take for example March 7, 2011. Taylor reported a “barely discernible” sheen covering 3 nm by 5 nm (12,713 acres), to which they attributed 0.3 gallon of material ( a little more than a quart).  The equivalent average sheen thickness would have been 0.00002 micron, or one-tenth the diameter of a molecule of water. You can’t make this stuff up.  Or maybe someone does?

Even if the Taylor estimates were in the right range (which of course they are not), it is also puzzling how they can give report their estimates with a precision better than 0.01 gallons, in some reports to a fantastic precision of 0.0001 gallon. On December 31, 2010, Taylor reported a sheen covering 2,178 acres  (100 ft by 20 ft, or 0.05 acre) and estimated that it was caused by 0.0001 gal of material — that’s less than one-tenth of a teaspoon.  On February 10, 2011, Taylor reported a sheen area 75 feet by 100 feet (0.2 acre) that involved a mere “0.0003 gal” of material — less than one-quarter teaspoon. Either someone writing these estimates does not understand that it is not possible to make precision by artificially adding more decimal places than the original data provided, or Taylor accomplishes extraordinary feats of measurement acuity from aircraft moving faster than 100 kts at several hundred feet or higher above the water.

(You can see all of these results for yourself in the detailed References summarized below with links provided to the full documents.)

After we applied the Bonn guidelines for estimating sheen thickness as corrections to the Taylor estimates of material amounts using Taylor’s sheen descriptions, the corrected estimates were consistent with an average equivalent sheen thickness of about 0.25 micron since 2008.  Independent observations reported by OWOC, analyzed according to the Bonn guidelines, imply average sheen thicknesses of about 0.3 micron.

When the public submits reports to the NRC, they are not requested to provide an estimate of the amount of material, although they are welcome to do so. The Coast Guard could make such estimates, from the same published data and in the same manner used by this author, just as easily as they could check the reasonableness of the estimates provided they by Taylor.  Instead, mysteriously, 100% of the MC20 NRC reports that are not provided by Taylor  show the amount of material as “zero” or “unknown,” despite detailed descriptions including links to photos and videos, GPS flight tracks and more. 

Some specific comparisons of observations by OWOC with those by Taylor are instructive.  Consider five representative dates since 2012:  October 6, 2012; May 4 and August 4, 2013; and June 18 and October 9, 2014. A full file of comparisons with all relevant data and representative photos is provided in the References below.




The conclusions of the same-day Taylor reports differ markedly from OWOC’s conclusions. They are summarized in the table below, including corrections to the Taylor estimated amounts of material using the Bonn guidelines.  The OWOC descriptions are taken from the published articles on the OnWingsOfCare.org website and from the published photos, videos, and GPS flight tracks. 

We have particular trouble with the June 18, 2014 Taylor reports, which say that the meandering lines of heavy rainbow and weathered oil, which left the scientists in the sampling boat nauseous from the fumes, amounted to only 0.34 gallons of oil — i.e., just a little over a quart of oil.  Would the photos above make you question the Taylor estimates for the number of gallons of oil that produced those areas of sheen?

20150426-Table-5DayComparison-New


Hurricane Ivan and the Central Planning Area

Looking back to September 2004, Hurricane Ivan was just one more tropical storm, the likes of which occur every year in the Gulf of Mexico.  Compared to Katrina that hit land a year later, Ivan was gentle! Still, on its way to land, Ivan damaged more than 160 oil production pipelines. Just before reaching land, in shallow coastal waters less than 500 ft deep, Ivan delivered an unforgiving blow to the area known as Mississippi Canyon Lease Block No. 20 (MC20). It  twirled pipelines around like a toy, precipitating a massive mudslide that toppled the platform and covered the 28 active oil and gas wells with more than 100 feet of mud and sediment.  Ever since then, from unknown, unreachable, or unstoppable sources beneath the seafloor, oil and gas stream upward, forming tentacles of oil and oil-coated gas bubbles that extend for 10—15 miles along the surface, moving around with the currents like a monster alive and growing.

MC20 is just one of more than 29,000 roughly 5500-acre designated squares of seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico, which the U.S. government offers to lease to companies who produce energy, in return for rent and royalties.  Like the permits issued for MC20 since 1980, most of these permits are “to drill, develop, and produce oil and gas resources.” Offshore oil and gas leases provide the second highest annual source of revenue to the government (taxes being the highest); and more than half of all offshore oil and gas leases are in the waters off the coast of Louisiana.  To the U.S. government, Gulf of Mexico waters off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana are first and foremost an oil and gas resource — not a food resource, not a recreational environment, not a marine area to be protected.

This diagram, provided by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), shows the Gulf of Mexico “Planning Areas” for energy production leases, from coastline out to the 200-mile Economic Exclusion Zone.  (“OCS” is Outer Continental Shelf.) In the Central Planning Area, off the coast of Louisiana, one-third of these national waters have been leased.



20150426-BOEM-GoMLeaseBlock-wm



Springtime for the past five years along the Gulf Coast has been a poignant reminder that these waters are scarcely protected by the US government except to ensure continued mining of their minerals.  Just five springtimes ago and about 30 miles south of MC20, in the deeper waters of Lease Block MC252, the most catastrophic single ocean pollution event in U.S. history occurred — the 2010 explosion beneath BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform. That disaster spewed an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and caused widespread massive destruction to the seafloor, resulting in death of benthos and marine life throughout the water column, for hundreds of square miles.  Our government responded by applying about two million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants in order to remove the oil from the water’s surface and “disperse” it through the water column, so that currents would “carry it away.”  Their motto was: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” 

Citizens were horrified at the massive injuries to marine ecosystems and coastal wetlands, local fishing economies, and human health.  They expected changes to regulations governing offshore oil and gas activities that would provide better prevention against such pollution disasters, and protection both to humans working offshore and to our ocean and coastal ecosystems.  Where are those changes? New offshore drilling permits are being issued.  Application of chemical dispersants remains the official plan for responding to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. Regulations still do not require precautions such as back-up blow-out protectors or sub-surface ROVs. And the companies who caused these pollution nightmares continue business as usual here. 


Decades of carelessness

From 1981 through 1994, MC20 was leased for oil development by Sohio Petroleum and BP Exploration.  Taylor Energy leased it exclusively beginning in 1994.  The Coast Guard has stated that the high spatial density and general layout of the wells drilled there in the ‘80s and ‘90s would be considered unsafe today.  There is no evidence in past or current MC20 lease permits of any geophysical studies or warnings regarding soil instability in the area or potential dangers of massive mudslides in conjunction with tropical storms and hurricanes.

It was irresponsible of our government to issue permits “to drill, develop, and produce oil and gas resources” in MC20 when the risks were so high and the potential consequences so dire. What is the penalty and what is the cure when our own government commits errors of negligence that cause disastrous consequences to public resources?  How do we hold our government accountable?  Are they even required to admit any such errors? How do we know today that new permits are being issued wisely, or that regulations and their enforcement are now adequate to protect Gulf of Mexico waters from new severe pollution incidents?

In the wake of Hurricane Ivan, the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) ordered Taylor Energy to put $500 million into an account to fund specified activities intended to stop the pollution.  Because of the persistent surface oil sheen, the Coast Guard issued a Notice of Federal Interest to Taylor Energy in February of 2005.  Skimmers were kept on standby to recover the oil, but they never succeeded in recovering it. Between 2005 and 2007, all attempts to excavate the well bays or expose the conducts in order to “plug and abandon” had failed, because the soft soil filled in holes as fast as they were dug.  A Jones Act waiver was filed to have the world’s largest dredger, the Vasco de Gama, attempt the job; but the waiver was denied, and a massive excavation project was deemed unsafe. 

Hydrocarbons were identified in the soil surrounding the defunct platform, down to 80 ft and more below the mud line.  In December 2007, the DOI (through its Minerals Management Service, MMS) ordered Taylor “to take immediate remedial action to prevent further soil contamination and/or hydrocarbon seepage”  and to provide MMS “with written details of all corrective plans and procedures.”  Because of the soft soil, typical well bore interventions were not practical.  Taylor contracted with the engineering firm Boots and Coots International Well Control Inc. (“B&C”) to come up with a proprietary design for well intervention.  Serious hope was touted by many, particular insurance companies, that “natural sedimentation” would eventually cap the site.

The Coast Guard ordered Taylor to complete field abandonment by the end of June 2008, and by then Taylor  had relinquished their lease to MMS. (Taylor Energy sold their interest to Ankor Energy Korea, who has a platform in nearby MC21.)   At this time, no intervention wells had yet been drilled.

Another Notice of Federal Interest was given to Taylor in July 2008, requiring Taylor to “mitigate the impact or the potential impact of discharges to the environment, including during any recovery operations and/or well plus and abandonment operations.”  The Coast Guard warned Taylor that“failure to properly carry out the removal of the discharge as ordered” could subject them to “additional penalties with a civil penalty of up to $32,500 per day.“  That might be construed to imply that the Coast Guard suspected that as much as 320 gallons per day of crude oil was leaking into the Gulf (assuming $4300/barrel maximum Clean Water Act penalties). That’s about 15 times the average daily amount of material that Taylor was reporting around that time, and since.  As of March 31, 2015, it has been approximately 2,433 days since August 1, 2008. At $32,500 per day, those penalties would add up to a little over $79 million.  Interestingly, after careful analyses of all NRC reports and other documented aerial observations of MC20 at regular intervals since 2008, this author’s best estimate of the total amount of oil that has leaked into the Gulf in MC20 since 2008 has been approximately one million gallons. At the upper range of Clean Water Act fines of approximately $100/gallon, that would be about 25% more than the civil penalties warned by the Coast Guard in mid-2008.

The Coast Guard directed Taylor to fabricate and install a subsea collection system over the plume sites, and to begin conducting daily overflights of the area to monitor and record sheen measurements. In compliance, Taylor Energy began submitting daily NRC reports for MC20 in late June 2008.  On September 23, 2008, the Coast Guard issued Administrative Order 006-08, which ordered Taylor to skim, conduct overflights to monitor the discharge, and install pollution domes to mitigate the discharge. By late 2008, Taylor completed decommissioning of the 6” pipeline that extended from the original platform to a sub-sea tie-in about 10 miles southwest (in South Pass lease block SP50). 

Nine intervention wells were eventually drilled and plugged successfully. The consensus of experts was that the unstable soil made it inadvisable to attempt any more, due to the risk of causing further leakage.  As of October 2010, two of the three identified primary oil plumes previously visible as surface sheen had been eliminated. But sixteen damaged wells still remained to be plugged.

By late 2009, Taylor finished installing  their first subsurface containment system consisting of three 100-barrel (4,200-gallon) steel domes, a 50-barrel oil-water separator, hoses from the separator to the surface, and a marker buoy. They were disconnected in 2012 due to subsidence around one of the domes and minimal recovery of material.  In mid-2012, with Administrative Order 001-12, the Coast Guard directed Taylor to design a new pollution dome system that would work with the soft soil, but Taylor asserted that no design could possibly eliminate all surface sheen since so much of the soil had become contaminated with hydrocarbons. In 2013, Taylor reactivated the previous containment system but again had minimal success in recovering oil.  In January 2014, just a little over a year ago, with Administrative Order 12-001, the Coast Guard directed Taylor Energy to design a new pollution dome system. 

In 2009—2011, the Taylor overflights averaged once every other day, but beginning in 2012 they rose again to almost daily and have continued so to date.

A report from the Coast Guard in May 2014 said:
“Key improvements include new procedures for aerial observations, response thresholds and deployment of surface recovery assets, and new containment and contingency domes. New containment dome engineering design to be completed by Dec 2014;  fabrication and installation expected to begin in early 2015.”
Curious about these new procedures for aerial observations, the author combed the NRC reports for any signs of change. What was found was an increase in the number of reports that cited amounts of material correlating with equivalent average sheen thicknesses smaller than 0.003 micron, but also a decrease (from 42% to 33%) in reports that described the sheen merely as “barely discernible”  Due to a single anomalous report of very large sheen area and amount of material on October 10, 2014, the year’s average daily reported amount of material was skewed upward. On that day, mysteriously Taylor suddenly reported a sheen area of over 71,000 acres and material amount of “1,962.65 gallons.”  (This is included in the table above, showing the OWOC observation from October 9, 2014.) Three days later, the Taylor reported amounts returned again to single digits or even zero. The Coast Guard noted the October 10 Taylor report as a “Significant Event”:
“Largest sheen observation & estimated discharge volume in Taylor history occurred on October 10, 2014. Clean Gulf Associates 46’ Fast Response Vessel deployed but was unable to recover any product.”

As of today, almost all of the monies put by Taylor Energy into the trust account have been spent.  And the  daily flow of new oil continues, as or more strongly than ever.


Public reports by the Coast Guard show that they are aware of the deleterious impacts on the marine environment and wildlife.  For example, on April 29, 2013 when Taylor was reactivating their containment system, the Coast Guard issued an urgent interim rule establishing a Regulated Navigation Area (RNA) in MC20, foregoing the usual  standard public notices and delays. They said (bold emphasis added):
"Under 5 U.S.C. 553(b)(B), the Coast Guard finds that good cause exists for not publishing a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) with respect to this rule because delaying issuance of this rule would be impracticable and contrary to public interest. After installation of a containment dome, any vessels anchoring, mooring or loitering in the area covered by this rule have the potential to cause grave environmental impacts and greatly reduce the effectiveness of the containment and monitoring system for the affected wellhead. The necessity of this dome and RNA were unexpected.

Anchoring, mooring or loitering in the area covered by the rule could potentially cause structural damage and failure to the containment dome, associated hoses and systems, wellheads, well piping system and closure valves, causing the discharge of crude oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico. The protection of this area is crucial in reducing negative impacts to wildlife and to protect the subsea collection and monitoring system around a damaged subsea oil well.

Under 5 U.S.C. 553(d)(3), for the same reasons as discussed above, the Coast Guard finds that good cause exists for making this rule effective less than 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. A 30-day delay in this rule's effective date would be impracticable and contrary to the public interest in reducing the potential catastrophic impacts to the environment and wildlife from a system failure."


In 2015, now ten and one-half years after the start of this ongoing oil leak from the seafloor, the Coast Guard is still publishing daily NRC reports for MC20, submitted by Taylor Energy.  Photographic and video documentation from independent observers continue to contrast strikingly with the low Amounts of Material cited in the Taylor Energy reports.


Amount of Material:  Careless reporting or deliberate deception?

Sound decisions about who bears what degree of practical and financial responsibility for this ongoing pollution problem, what its true cumulative environmental and human impacts are, and how to solve it, all require as accurate an accounting as possible of the amount of pollution that has occurred and the extent of its environmental and human consequences. Observational estimates of the volume of oil in a surface sheen or slick are inherently approximate because they depend on so many environmental and observational variables.  Furthermore, the surface oil also represents only a small portion of the total oil present, since most of the volume is in the thicker, dark-colored oil; and precisely because it is dark (“optically thick”), we cannot judge its thickness by looking at it, other than to say that it must be at least 200 microns6 thick for it to look so dark.

At the other end of the sheen thickness spectrum is the very thin barely visible “transparent” or grayish sheen, which starts at about 0.04 micron and begins to look a bit silvery as it approaches 0.1—0.15 micron. As it grows thicker, the sheen becomes iridescent, until by 0.3 micron it has begun to show bright rainbow colors and stays bright until 1.0 micron or a bit thicker.  As it gets thicker, the colors become darker, sometimes described as metallic, and when it appears dark brown, it has reached a thickness of several tens of microns.  Beyond that, it becomes optically thick, and we cannot guess its thickness very easily.

NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard provide the BAOAC guidelines noted above in their field training for aerial oil observations, which prescribe approximate sheen thicknesses based on appearance of surface sheen from aircraft flying on average 200 ft to 1500 ft above.7 These guidelines provide thickness ranges based on sheen color, and they recommend a “nominal” thickness to use for average estimates, and are listed in the table below.

Thirty years ago, the standard guidelines for estimating open-water sheen thickness based on appearance were somewhat different in that they ascribed smaller thicknesses to darker sheen, resulting in lower estimates of sheen volume.8  While it’s possible that Taylor Energy has been using these older standards in their NRC reports, their estimates of amount of material (sheen volume) imply that they assume thicknesses even smaller than given by these older guidelines.

20150426-BAOAC-Table

Many variables affect sheen appearance to an aircraft flying overhead, such as:

  • the amount of available sunlight (clear or overcast sky, open or closed window);
  • viewing angle (time of day and whether one looks straight down or obliquely); 
  • other material present (such as sargassum or other organic matter); and 
  • wind, current, and wave conditions (waves mix the oil and make it much less visible).

Since oil tends to float in many separated winding tentacles and and patches, care must be used in identifying the area of the sheen; if only the outer boundaries of the sheen area are noted and they include much area where there is no sheen, then a percent coverage must be estimated and included in the report, noting also percentages of the different colors in the sheen.

To consider all of these factors, the NRC requests the following information for each report:

  • Weather — air visibility, temperature, wind and wind direction;
  • Wave conditions (the Beaufort scale of 0—5 is usually used characterize wave height);
  • Current speed and direction, and direction in which the sheen is traveling;
  • Length and width (area) of the sheen; 
  • Sheen appearance — best given by different percentages for different colors, plus a percent coverage if the area given for the sheen includes regions where there is no sheen;
  • Additional information of any sort that might affect the estimate of oil volume (“Amount of Material”).


The Taylor reports lack most of this supportive information. As noted above, they also give no indication of what they assume for sheen thickness.  Many other observational reports, such as those from NOAA, do provide much of this detailed information.  Ultimately, even the best efforts to faithfully report sheen appearances, dimensions, percent coverage, etc. and to estimate sheen volume carefully based on that information, will result in only lower bounds on the full amount of oil leaking from the seafloor.  The pattern of very low estimates of amounts of material from the Taylor reports began immediately in June 2008 and has continued to this day.

Here are some charts that depict graphically what analyses of all of the NRC reports and other documented observations of MC20 since 2005 have shown. More charts and the information on which they are based are contained in the References appended below.

The first two charts (top row, left to right) show the percentages of Taylor reports that describe the sheen as “barely discernible”, “silvery”, “rainbow” or “faintly colored”, or provide no description at all. Contrast this with the second chart (upper right) which compares Taylor sheen descriptions with those provided by independent observers, including On Wings Of Care (OWOC). Notice that since 2008, the Taylor observers seem not to notice silvery or rainbow sheen, while other observers have been reporting considerably amounts of rainbow or silvery sheen, as proven in the photos and videos provided by OWOC, for example.

The next two charts show the average daily amounts of oil reported in MC20 by different observers (lower left), and the cumulative amount of oil reported (lower right). The author has included a posited best estimate of average daily amounts, based on agreement among reports with emphasis given to amounts reported for same days by different sources. All sources concur that the daily average amount of surface oil sheen seems to be increasing at this time.  Which brings us to the next topic … if what’s been done for the past ten years has not helped, what can we try next?




What to do

Summation of the average daily reported amounts of oil observed as surface sheen in MC20 since 2008, when regular reporting began, through end of March 2015 gives a best estimate of at least one million (1,000,000) gallons. This is about 20 times larger than the sum of reported amounts by Taylor to date. (For more details, see the Statistics spreadsheet in the References below.)

Our government’s ethics ultimately reflect our own ethics. If our government has become myopic or greedy or careless, it is because we have.  When we discover wrong action by our government, the only cure is right action by us.

If our government’s duties should be to serve, protect, and sustain our communities, our natural resources, and the health of our land, water, and air —  then we must make them so.  If we are to live those great ideals of democracy such as respect for all life, freedom and justice for all, and equality of rights and opportunities, then we must also good stewardship of our natural resources and protection of our planet’s biodiversity.  It is time for us to wake up, learn our lessons, and take responsibility.

The MC20 pollution site — that chronic, nearby reminder of mining gone wrong — has turned out to be an informative study of what has gone wrong, what still is going wrong, and how citizens can — if we will — protect the Gulf of Mexico from such future tragedies.  If citizens will protect the Gulf of Mexico, other citizens will protect other precious places on this planet.  If we just will.

Residents and stakeholders in communities and economies who depend on the healthy, intact ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico have seen and felt firsthand the negative changes that have occurred with these deadly pollution events. But the negative repercussions of continuing to poison the Gulf of Mexico are felt much farther than on our coastlines and are becoming increasingly serious. Citizens made themselves available immediately after the BP disaster of 2010 to lay absorbent boom to protect sensitive coastlines, to remove surface oil by skimming, to document and monitor the status of sensitive coastal areas and wildlife,  to sample beaches and barrier islands to assess their safety for public use, and much more.  Citizens have discovered unreported pollution incidents and have often been the “first responders” for offshore accidents.  Citizens can and must play a more vital part in assuring the safety of offshore oil and gas activities and protection of our waters. 

In Alaska, within one year of the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, highly successful Regional Citizens’ Advisory Councils (RCACs) were established. They have proven to be vital and effective forces for improving the safety of offshore oil exploration, production, and transportation.  There are no practical obstacles to Congress establishing a Gulf of Mexico RCAC immediately and including its mandate with others in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.  (Please see information on a proposed GoM RCAC in the documents included below in the References.)  The charter of a Gulf of Mexico RCAC in no way duplicates those of any committees organized or contemplated for restoration from the BP disaster, nor of the Coast Guard’s Regional Response Teams, which are concerned with oil spill preparedness, planning, and response. The RCAC puts citizens to work on the prevention of future accidents and pollution incidents in the Gulf of Mexico. Citizen stakeholders in the Gulf of Mexico have the expertise and the right to work alongside government and industry in improving offshore safety, mitigating hazards, and monitoring offshore oil and gas activities. Citizens must become empowered to be more effective stewards of our ocean, our coastal wetlands, and our coastal communities. 

Pogo was right that “the enemy is us.”  But so is the rescuer.  And there’s no time to waste.

 

Bonny L. Schumaker, Ph.D. 
New Orleans, LA 70184-4228 
Tele: 626-383-1412   
OnWingsOfCare.org

Notes:

  1. The author thanks Trisha James of Navarre, FL for help with organizing NRC reports for this article, and all volunteers with OnWingsOfCare.org (“OWOC”) for their assistance in monitoring Gulf of Mexico waters and their  marine life.
  2. Bonn Agreement Oil Appearance Code (BAOAC or “Bonn”) internationally accepted guidelines, adopted by NOAA and the Coast Guard in 2007, and reflected in the Coast Guard “Open Water Oil Identification Job Aid.”
  3. OnWingsOfCare.org’s website contains extensive documentation, with photos, videos, GPS flight tracks, and flight logs of more than 40 MC20 flyovers since July 01, 2011.
  4. Rigorous analysis must note medians, not just averages, because of a severe skewing effect caused by a single day’s anomalous Taylor report in October 2014 which noted a sheen area of 70,000 acres, more than 200 times their median since late 2011. These are noted in the spreadsheets which may be viewed in the References for this article.
  5. The NRC reports use many different spreadsheets to describe each pollution incident or observation. But the only information common to all of them is Report Number. So, for example, it is not straightforward to search the NRC reports for all information about pollution reports for a particular location (such as Lease Block MC20), or for a particular Responsible Party.  The task of  compiling all NRC reports related to MC20 should have been simple, but it was arduous.
  6. 1 micron = 1 cubic meter / square kilometer = 1.069 US gallon / 1 acre.  1 acre = 43,560 sq ft.  1 nm = 6,076 ft
  7. NOAA’s “Open Water Oil Identification Job Aid for aerial observation” (OWJA 2012) uses the  “BONN (BAOAC data” noted herein and is available here: http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/OWJA_2012.pdf  These are what the Coast Guard use for their field spotting.
  8. “Oil Spill Slide Rule”, © 1985 Government Publishing Office The Hague / The Netherlands.  These standards ascribed thinner layers to darker colors, although still not as thin as the Taylor reports seem to assume.

 

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Reference Material on MC20

1.  Charts: These charts summarize some of the data and conclusions described in the article and in the spreadsheets regarding the reported, observed, and estimated actual amount of pollution in MC20 (Mississippi Canyon Lease Block 20) since 2005. The charts show the numbers and sources of all published aerial observations of MC20 pollution, and some of the statistics of the reports filed by Taylor Energy Company (the "Responsible Party"), NOAA's NESDIS satellite information service, and by On Wings Of Care, Inc.  They also show the average daily amounts of material (oil comprising the observed surface sheens) reported by different sources for each year since 2005. Finally, we give our best estimate of the cumulative amount of oil that has found itself to the waters in MC20 as of end of March 2015.

2. Comparisons: These are comparisons of data, with photographs, from aerial observations of MC20 as reported by Taylor Energy Company and On Wings Of Care, Inc., for all days that OWOC published reports with photos and videos between July 01, 2011 and March 31, 2015. In these you will find all of the critical data from the reports as well as the calculated quantities such as reported sheen area (in acres), equivalent average sheen thickness for the stated or inferred amounts of material, and the re-estimated quantities using the Bonn guidelines for the Taylor reported data, excerpted from the Compilation spreadsheets.

3.  Statistics: This is a single file summarizing some of the key statistics from the observational reports, for each year since 2005 through end of March 2015 (2015Q1). Examples include the numbers (and percentages) of reports organized by source -- Taylor Energy, NOAA, On Wings Of Care (OWOC), and other, with summaries of the following kinds of information:

  • Average daily reported sheen dimensions
  • Number of reports that reported sheen that was rainbow or heavier, silvery, or "barely discernible."
  • Average daily amounts of material reported and re-estimated by OWOC using the internationally accepted and U.S. Coast Guard-adopted BAOAC (or "Bonn" Agreement) guidelines
  • Average dailiy "equivalent average thickness" implied by reported amounts of material, sheen size, and percent coverage
  • Report anomalies such as:
    • Number of reports that  that estimated nonzero amounts of material but gave no information about sheen appearance or size.
    • Number of reports that estimated zero amounts of material even though the data on sheen appearance and size would have indicated appreciable amounts.

4.  Compilations of Observational Reports: These spreadsheets summarize all critical data about MC20 reported in the NRC reports and/or published at OnWingsOfCare.org since 2005.  Extraction of the data from the Coast Guard's NRC reports (available here) was arduous because of the manner in which the latter are organized; but reproduction here has been faithful. The calculations included in these spreadsheets include total sheen area (in acres), total amount of material (both as reported by Taylor and re-calculated per the Bonn guidelines, as well as amounts inferred from observations by independent sources), and equivalent average sheen thicknesses -- inferred from the Taylor estimates or assumed on the basis of the observation descriptions.

2015Q1

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007--04

 

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References for proposed GoM Regional Citizens' Advisory Council (RCAC)

1. Publications re the proposed GoM RCAC:

2.  Proposed legislation for a GoM RCAC

3. Certified Letters to Department of Interior re GoM RCAC

4. 2013 Meeting for Citizen Stakeholders, Industry, and Government representatives

Invitation letters were sent to selected citizen stakeholders from all five Gulf Coast states, and to 20 representatives from the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas industry and from government agencies including the EPA, U.S. Coast Guard, and NOAA.  Only a few RSVPs were received, and only citizens attended this meeting.

 

 

 

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Photographic History of the MC20 Oil Pollution Site
2011--2015, by On Wings Of Care

Here is a photo chronology of what MC20 has looked like for the past almost four years, from our aircraft and cameras, on average once per month. It should put aside any ideas you may have that the slick goes away much of the time — because it doesn’t.

2011 July:  (2011 07 01)



2011 August: (2011 08 19)



2011 September: (2011 09 21)



2011 December: (three flights: 2011 Dec 09, 20, and 30)?
2011 12 09:


2011 12 20:


2011 12 30:




2012 February (2012 02 29):




2012 April (2012 04 06 & 04 12
2012 04 06:


2012 04 12:?


2012 May   (2012 05 22 & 05 30)
2012 05 22:


20120530:



2012 August: (2012 08 12)



**2012 October: (2012 10 05 & 06)



2012 November  (2012 11 09 & 10)



2012 December (2012 12 02)




2013 January (2013 01 04, 20, &27)
2013 01 04:


2013 01 20 & 27:


2013 01 27:



2013 February   (2013 02 17)



2013 March  (2013 03 08 & 16)
2013 03 08:


2013 03 16:




2013 April  (2013 04 02)


**2013 May  (2013 05 24)



2013 June (2013 06  03)



2013 July   (2013 007 02, 19, & 31 — not published)


**2013 August  (20 08 04 &21)
**2013 08 04:


2013 08 21:




2014 April  (2014 04 11)



2014 May  (2014 05 21)



**2014 June  (2014 06 18 & 22)
**2014 06 18


2014 06 22



2014 September   (2014 09 08)



**2014 October   (2012 10 09)




2015 March  (2015 03 19 & 31)

 

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