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By Andy Rowell

It may be a New Year, but there is an old oil spill that keeps on spilling. The trouble is that you will probably have never have heard about the spill.

But you need to know. Because, for more than 14 years, some 10,000 to 30,000 gallons of oil have leaked daily from a sunken oil rig owned by Taylor Energy into the Gulf of Mexico, about 12 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

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Taylor Energy spill seen from space in 2017. SkyTruth

The U.S. Coast Guard has ordered Taylor Energy Co. to clean and contain a 14-year chronic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or face a fine of $40,000 a day.

Environmentalists had warned about the unrelenting leak for years after the Gulf Restoration Network and the watchdog group SkyTruth discovered oil slicks via satellite imagery while investigating the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The ongoing Taylor Energy oil spill, photographed on Sept. 2, 2012. LEAN Louisiana Environmental Action Network

Yet another reason to #KeepItInTheGround. A 14-year chronic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico could surpass BP's Deepwater Horizon spill as the largest offshore disaster in U.S. history, the Washington Post reported.

The spill stems from a Taylor Energy-owned production platform located 12 miles off the coast of Louisiana that was toppled by an underwater mudslide caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

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SkyTruth

By Paul Woods

On Feb. 9, SkyTruth released its Site 23051 Cumulative Spill Report showing an estimation of the total cumulative amount of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at the site of Taylor Energy's ongoing oil spill that began in 2004. In this report, we conclude:

  1. Crude oil has been leaking continuously from this site for more than 7 years
  2. Estimated cumulative volume of crude oil spilled is between 251,677 and 1,174,492 gallons

Read the full report to see how we came up with these numbers by clicking here.

We created this report using 950 pollution reports filed with the National Response Center (which we presume were filed by the polluter, Taylor Energy) covering 714 out of 2,662 days (just 27 percent) from the first report of oil at the site on Sept. 17, 2004 through the end of 2011. We filled in the substantial gaps in this official public reporting record with observations on satellite images, and then computed an Estimated Average Daily Slick Extent. From that we derived an Estimated Average Daily Flow Rate for each calendar year since the spill began. Multiply the daily flow rate by the number of days the site has been leaking, and you have an estimate of the cumulative volume of the spill.

There are two key assumptions we used to compute the average daily flow rate:

  1. Average oil thickness in observable slicks
  2. Average rate of degradation of an oil slick, expressed in terms of a half-life

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

Combining all our data on slick extent with the high and low values for each of the key assumptions, we get 4 values for estimated cumulative oil spilled (see the calculations):

Half Life (days)    Thickness (microns)    Estimate(gallons)    
            3                                   1.0                                       1,174,492
            3                                   0.5                                         587,246
            7                                   1.0                                         503,354
            7                                   0.5                                         251,677

Background

SkyTruth, the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and others have been actively monitoring this site for 21 months since May of 2010 (during what turned out to be the early days of the massive BP—Deepwater Horizon spill), when we noticed on our satellite images another much smaller slick about 11 miles off the tip of the Mississippi River Delta.

Since then, we have analyzed historic satellite imagery back to the beginning of the spill,  and we have waded through the spotty but extensive public record of official pollution reports filed with the National Response Center. Site 23051 also featured prominently in the recent Gulf Monitoring Consortium report, and earlier this month Waterkeeper Alliance announced a lawsuit against Taylor Energy over the ongoing spill.

Other Sources of Estimates

As far as we know, our report is the first comprehensive attempt to estimate the total amount of oil spilled at this site. However, the Coast Guard was recently quoted in an Associated Press news article as saying "a total of 12,720 gallons of oil have been reported from daily observations since the spill started in 2004."

We called the Coast Guard last week and asked them where that number came from, and they told us, "Approximately 12,720 gallons have been reported from daily observations (over flights) as of Feb. 2, 2012." We followed up on Feb. 9 and the Coast Guard told us that this number is the total of all the reports filed with them by Taylor Energy, who is conducting the regular overflights, but they could not say how many reports this represents.

We asked them to investigate and get us a breakdown of exactly what they added up to get this number, especially what days are actually covered in that total, but as of this writing we do not have an answer. However, if their reporting record is as spotty as the public NRC record, then this number likely only captures a fraction of the true amount.

More on this under-reporting problem coming soon, so stay tuned.

Parting Thought—Worst-Case Scenario?

The environmental and economic damage from this chronic spill may be relatively minor, although if you ask a biologist and tell her it's a 1.2 million gallon spill, you might get a different answer than if you tell her it's only a 12,000 gallons spill. But imagine that the same event that wiped out Taylor's platform just 11 miles off the coast, had instead happened at a deepwater platform 100 miles offshore.

More on that later

For more information, click here.

Waterkeeper Alliance

Waterkeeper Alliance and several Gulf Coast Waterkeeper organizations filed suit in Federal Court Feb. 2 against Taylor Energy Company LLC under the citizen suit provisions of the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation Recovery Act, for ongoing violations stemming from an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that has continued to flow for more than seven years.

Aided by satellite imagery and research conducted by SkyTruth and aerial observation by SouthWings, the Waterkeeper Alliance and its local Waterkeeper organizations learned that the spill, located approximately 11 miles off the coast of Louisiana, started after an undersea landslide in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. An offshore platform and 28 wells were damaged, and since then, Taylor has yet to stop the daily flow of oil from the site. Waterkeeper estimates that hundreds of gallons of oil have leaked from the site each day for the last 7 years.

“The plaintiffs filed suit to stop the spill and lift the veil of secrecy surrounding Taylor Oil’s seven-year long response and recovery operation,” explained Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Neither the government nor Taylor will answer basic questions related to the spill response, citing privacy concerns.” The public deserves to know how this spill happened and why it continues. Coastal communities should understand the risks involved in developing off-shore oil resources and what protections are in place to prevent damage from future spills.

“The Taylor Oil spill is emblematic of a broken system, where oil production is prioritized over concerns for human health and the environment,” said Justin Bloom, eastern regional director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Nearly two years after the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill, none of the comprehensive reforms recommended by the National Oil Spill Commission have been enacted and Congress has yet to pass a single law to better protect workers, the environment or coastal communities.”

Meanwhile, President Obama, in his State of the Union, has called for a massive push to open up 38 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil exploration and extraction. He also seeks to open up pristine Arctic waters to drilling. The Taylor spill is in relatively shallow and accessible waters compared to the deepwater, challenging environment where Big Oil has set its sights. Oil exploration and extraction technology has dramatically outpaced the development of safety and recovery technology and it appears that the current regulatory regime is incapable of protecting us from a runaway industry.

A report released this week by the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, a partnership between Waterkeeper Alliance, SkyTruth and SouthWings, investigates several spills in the Gulf (including the Taylor Spill) and highlights numerous deficiencies in the reporting and response process.

A copy of the report can be found by clicking here.

“Imagine an incident like the Taylor Spill in a deepwater, high-pressure environment, that could not be contained in 7 years,” said Paul Orr, the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. “Do we really want to race to the bottom without a lifeline when it looks like Big Oil is still at the helm?”

A copy of the complaint can be found by clicking here.

Joining Waterkeeper Alliance in the lawsuit are—Atchfalaya Basinkeeper, Baton Rouge, La.; Galveston Baykeeper, Galveston, Texas; Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, Baton Rouge, La.; Louisiana Bayoukeeper, Barataria, La.; and Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Baton Rouge, La. Plaintiffs are represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

For more information, click here.

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Waterkeeper Alliance is a global environmental movement uniting more than 190 Waterkeeper organizations around the world and focusing citizen advocacy on the issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. Waterkeepers patrol more than 1.5 million square miles of rivers, streams and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.  

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