The following is our transcription of the November 19, 2009 testimony of John Amos of Skytruth, a non-profit environmental imaging organization, to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
After more than a decade analyzing satellite imagery in the commercial sector for oil and gas exploration, I founded Skytruth, a non-profit corporation dedicated to investigating environmental issues using satellite images and other remote sensing technologies. We work to inform decisionmakers and the public about the risks posed by resource extraction so we can make better decisions about developing our resources, understand the worst-case scenarios implied by those risks, and insure that we can effectively respond to those scenarios. Our work investigating drilling mishaps severe storm damage and leaking pipelines demonstrates that major oil spills still occur today, including in US waters, despite significant advances in technology. This testimony addresses several instances of oil spills observed by Skytruth that very directly relate to current offshore and gas drilling production and the utility and effectiveness of mitigation efforts such as creating buffer zones.
Most recently, on August 21 2009, a production well at the Montara oil platform off the Northwest coast of Australia experienced a blowout, ejecting its cement plug and spraying oil and gas into the air and water. The platform and an attached West Atlas drill rig, seen in this photo, were evacuated. For the next 10 weeks oil and gas flowed unabated from the well. To plug the leak authorities decided to bring a second rig from Singapore and drill a relief well. On November 3, the spill was finally stopped by pumping heavy mud into the well. Concurrently, the platform and attached rig were engulfed in flames and burned for two days. The $250 million rig is reported to be a total loss, and engineers are assessing the integrity of the platform. Difficult work remains to install a permanent cement plug into the well.
Estimates of oil spilled range from 1.2 million gallons to more than 9 million gallons. Skytruth’s analysis of NASA images like the one here show that the oil slicks and sheen moved as far as 225 miles from the leaking well, and cumulatively impacted more than 24,000 square miles of ocean, an area the size of my state of West Virginia. Researchers documented impacts from this spill on sea birds and marine mammals. Indonesian and Australian fishermen cited fish kills and significant declines in catch, and news accounts report that fishermen are going bankrupt. The Australian government has launched an investigation into the causes of the blowout, effectiveness of the response, and environmental impact. The investigation is expected to take 6 months.
Severe storms pose another risk. In 2005, as Senator Dorgan noted, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita moved through oil fields in the Gulf as powerful Category 5 storms. Skytruth analysis of satellite images, including this image taken a few days after Katrina made landfall, reveal extensive slicks covering more than 700 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico. The Minerals Management Service reported that Katrina and Rita destroyed more than 100 platforms and damaged 450 offshore pipelines. These storms caused major spills from the on-shore facilities that support offshore production. The Coast Guard reported that on-shore infrastructure spilled 8 million gallons of oil into coastal wetlands, streams and communities. A single spill from a ruptured storage tank inundated 1700 homes in Louisiana with crude oil.
Infrastructure can fail even in the absence of storms. In calm weather in July 2009, a major pipeline operated by Shell sprang a leak about 30 miles off the Louisiana coast. Divers located a crack in the pipe, but 63 thousand galllons of oil spilled into the Gulf. The resulting slick covered 80 square miles. The failed pipeline was installed more than 30 years ago. In 2009, it began carrying oil from a new platform almost 200 miles south of New Orleans. In a common industry practice, the new platform was connected to the old pipeline network.
Offshore production in the Gulf began in the late 1940s. Today, as you can see on this map, the seafloor is crisscrossed by 25 thousand miles of active pipeline, connecting 3600 platforms to coastal facilities. As the pipeline network ages, structural failures and spills become increasingly likely.
In summary, offshore drilling is an inherently risky venture. Accidents happen despite the most technologically advanced systems. Nature can create insurmountable situations, and infrastructure ages and becomes vulnerable. Recent history shows that when things go wrong the consequences can become severe. As the Senate debates the merits of opening new offshore areas to energy development, it is important to understand and carefully evaluate the risks posed by offshore oil drilling. The critical first step is acknowledging these risks to the environment and to communities that depend on healthy marine and coastal ecosystems for their economic well-being. I thank you for your attention today and would be happy to answer questions.