15 June 2010

Saratoga Rig: Just the Facts

15 June 2010
Meaning has always seemed more important to me than fact.
A journalist, in theory, wants the facts; an artist, the essence.
I consider myself the latter.

While studying satellite imagery from the Gulf of Mexico, SkyTruth spotted an apparent slick from an oil platform and cross referenced the location to MMS info which showed it to be platform 23051 at 28.938022 - 88.970963. SkyTruth, knowing I was in the area shooting the BP Deepwater Horizon (Macondo well), asked me to investigate the location. SouthWings pilot Tom Hutchings agreed to fly by this site after our planned overflight of Macondo.

Upon navigation to the coordinates, a rig was spotted with an apparent petroleum slick on the ocean surface that extended beyond the limits of vision, and the assumption was made that this was the site in question. Next to the rig was a large boat with wake on both sides (as opposed to from the stern), but not moving. On the deck of the boat, men stood next to 9 barrels and a hose which hung over the port side of the boat. There was a yellow buoy or other flotation device where the hose entered the water. Several circles were made around the site, during which time the boat still did not move. Close-up photos show the name of the rig to be “Diamond Offshore Ocean Saratoga,” and the boat, the “Ram Charger.”Further examination of the photos shows in the distance an object with what appears to be another long slick, and comparison hand-held GPS coordinates taken from the plane are in a different location than the original coordinates given by SkyTruth. Thus, there are two leaks.

Taylor Energy (now owned by a Korean holding company) holds the lease on the well and states that they are:

“renting a rig from Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc. to plug wells that were destroyed by an undersea mudslide during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.” (Quoted from Reuters)

"As a result of deploying three subsurface containment domes and performing six successful well interventions, the initial average observed sheen volume of nine gallons per day has been substantially reduced."

The leak we see in the photos appears to be much greater than “nine gallons per day.”

Taylor said:
“the photos had incorrectly identified a leak coming from the Saratoga, whereas at that time the company had actually been operating a 180-foot dynamically positioned workboat for a scheduled containment system drainage.”

But curiously, in the next paragraph we read:

“Gary Krenek, Diamond's chief financial officer, had said earlier that while his company was required to report spills off its rig, and had not done so, it was contractually unable to discuss anything further.”

He referred questions to Taylor.

So they broke the law and can’t discuss it?

The official story does not jibe with the observed facts.
Meanwhile, after we announced the spill, the share price of Diamond Offshore dropped sharply. Alas, I am neither clever nor stupid enough to short a stock prior to releasing my photos, and I spent a day dodging calls from media and hedge fund operators. The fixation on quarterly earnings, and the gyrations and machinations of the stock market place our society in great peril on many levels.

Rather that fixating on the possibility of a well leak in regards to what it might mean to the stock price of a company, we would do better to fixate on what it means to the dolphins and the turtles, and our grandchildren.

According to a reporter from the Mobile Times Register, there are 600 unexplained leaks per month in the Gulf. The Diamond Offshore occurrence(s?) may or may not be a leak. The BP Deepwater Horizon may or may not be the largest spill in the Gulf this year. There will be many, and at some point, the culmination will overwhelm the flora and fauna that have teetered back from the brink so many times before. Then we will have systemic failure, and the Gulf becomes a dead sea, the consequences of which exceed comprehension. Just the litigation around the impacts of this one instance is incomprehensible.

The Conservatives decry the Liberals for forcing the oil companies to drill offshore rather than get the easy oil in Alaska. But the fact remains that resources are limited by definition, and our increasing hunger for oil will drive acquisition to the darkest corners of the planet. To get there, we will push the limits of technology, which means more accidents…

04 June 2010

Notes from the Gulf - part 2

4 June 2010

Another hot day.

Our plan was to fly west to Queen Bess Island, west of the Mississippi River where BP is rumored to be hiding oil-soaked animals, but a storm front prevented us from flying there. We instead decided to go straight for the source.

As soon as we leave the shore, we see oil. The wave crests have a strange texture, and the wind makes abnormal patterns. As a long time sailor, I can see it, and am more aware of it on this second flight. Oil calms the water.

Preparation is so important on these projects.

I have decided to try tapping off my lenses ad nauseam, instead of letting the auto focus work. Hopefully that will allow a faster shoot response time.

The source site is completely different.

We hear that overnight the LMRP was put over the severed pipe, but that only a fraction of the oil is being captured.

We see less oil on the surface, or rather it does not have the same multi-colored sheen. The drill ship is flaring gas, and a tremendous plume of oil seems to start there and extend downwind. It is a different color than anything we have seen before, very brown. There are more planes at the site which makes operation in the area hazardous. At one point a plane passes just below, disconcerting.

The flare is fascinating, and we circle repeatedly. Because of all of the traffic, we cannot go in as close as I would like. The skimmer teams do not seem to be so effective, as the quality of the oil is different. Two days ago the skimmers made a noticeable trail when they passed through the oil, but not today.

More later...

03 June 2010

Notes from the Gulf

3 June 2010

Arrive at FairHope, AL Airport, thunderstorms approaching.

We decide to go eat breakfast and wait for storms to pass.  Grits not bad, biscuits mediocre.

Taking off in a Cessna 182.

Rear seats and cargo door have been removed to enable photography.

As we get offshore, I see sunshine on Dauphin Island, which has had “no swim” directives issued today, as the oil is supposed to hit Alabama shores today.

Seeing first oil.  Bright red tendrils and sheen on the water.  Dodging thunderstorms as we make our way out to “the source” as it’s called.  It’s a bit surreal like Apocalypse Now, going through the clouds, music playing in the headphones, knowing they are right now desperately trying to cap the gushing pipe on the floor of the ocean.

We count 37 vessels involved in skimming operations, and 15 ships at the source.  There are two drill rigs, one drill ship, and one utility rig at the source.

Everything leaves a wake of oil, either from its movement or the current.  The skimmers are generally two boats with a boom/net between them.  The oil is sometimes red, sometimes “oily” colored.  Interestingly, it’s hard to shoot as the red is more visible when reflections are cut and the oily layer on the surface shows up with the reflected light.

Other rigs on the water seem to be operating “business as usual.”

Don’t see the beaches covered in oil that the media has led me to expect.  Maybe that’s further west in Louisiana?

Everywhere there is an expectation of disaster approaching.  This must be similar to the approach of a hurricane.

For years I have expected an infrastructure disaster here in “hurricane alley” where 40% of our oil is refined.  Not sure what percent originates here.

To see a few more images from the Gulf, click here.

02 June 2010

What Next?

2 June 2010

'Top Kill' has failed.

'Junk Shot' has failed.

Now they propose to cut off the pipe and drop a funnel over it.

The entity once known as British Petroleum behaves like a rogue cattle thief, ignoring government directives and the muted indignation of the population, who, in their misguided disaffection, are now blaming a president who inherited the patronage-based mess from the oil industry presidency that went before.

Meanwhile, the natural systems, oblivious to the machinations and hand-wringing of the humans above, continue to bleed the toxic goo into the ocean, where BP sinks it with the Orwellian-named dispersant Corexit, and then has the gall to say that it never existed. The public nods dumbly on, abdicating the responsibility of citizenship to the directives of the corporate big brother.

Where is the outrage?

Where is the personal commitment to stop contributing to the problem? Have we all sunk so far into self-indulgence that we can’t even see our complicity?

I’m flying from Houston (capital of the petro-based economy) to Mobile, a city bracing for the onslaught of oil tomorrow. The clouds seen from my window over the Gulf are a surreal red, lit by the evening sun filtered through the pollution above Houston.

Between the hydrocarbons bubbling out of the water into the atmosphere, and those being burned, the Macondo site generates its own weather.

What will it take for people to generate the appropriate outrage and demand sensible action? Dead dolphins floating to the beach? Pristine beaches covered in tar? Plummeting property values?

(BP will probably collect the dolphin carcasses in the night like during the plague, and tell us there were none)

There is a team of dedicated people watching the events unfold, and trying to clarify them for the media and the public beyond the usual sound-bite coverage.

Tom Hutchings, Southwings pilot, is out flying over the horrors of the Macondo site on a daily basis. John Amos and Skytruth are getting current satellite imagery and interpreting it so we have some overview of the progression. Don’t listen to the people that have a vested interest in this issue, listen to those lonely voices with a penchant for the truth.

This is big. Don’t believe otherwise.