Measurement and Testing

What Are Invisible Oil Spills?

Dec 23 2016 Read 1346 Times

Every year, US waters are afflicted by around 30,000 oil spills. While some are easy to spot, others are startlingly talented at slipping under the radar. One of the biggest causes is weather, with wild weather battering the US Gulf Coast during hurricane season.

As they unleash their fury, they churn up massive mud slides on the sea floor. These wreak havoc on undersea oil wells, with 2004’s Hurricane Ivan triggering 25 deep sea leaks when it stormed through the US Gulf Coast 12 years ago. It twisted multiple Taylor Energy pipelines, which eventually led to the total destruction of the entire oil platform. Today, the mess still lies at the bottom of the ocean, with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement warning that it will continue to leak for the next century. 

“Taylor is the most blatant example of everything that can go wrong with conventional offshore drilling,” comments David Manthos, program coordinator at environmental watchdog slash non-profit organisation, SkyTruth.

Size does matter

While the Taylor Energy disaster has received the most publicity, it’s by no means the USA’s only small-scale underwater leak. Every year, US waters endure thousands of oil and chemical spills, though very few receive media attention, let alone cash to fund the clean-up. Environmental groups are citing these low-profile incidents as ‘invisible spills,’ and maintain that more need to be done to when it comes to action and accountability.

Relatively speaking they may be small, but Manthos maintains that size definitely does matter. He stresses that every spill is consequential, and that the US Coast Guard needs to work harder to pinpoint exactly how much oil is being spilt, and what the environmental impact is. He also accuses oil giants of lowballing spill estimate figures, in a bid to avoid weighty fines.   

Using next-gen technology to combat oil spills

Now, SkyTruth is taking matters into its own hands and using a combination of satellite imagery and remote sensing data to paint a more accurate picture of spill sizes and frequencies along the US coast.

“We make an estimate and compare it to estimate they submit, and they usually don’t add up,” he says. “An environmentally concerned person might have a tendency to overreport. If the report comes from someone working on a oil platform, those volumes are frequently underreported.”

SkyTruth calls for better monitoring

So is there a solution? While modern builds like Deep Water Horizons can still go catastrophically wrong, Manthos cites ageing infrastructure and poor regulation as key culprits. Currently, the US government doesn’t require the industry to upgrade outdated equipment, which is a major cause of smaller leaks. Many wells aren’t even operational anymore, with experts estimating that more than 36,000 abandoned sites now pepper the Gulf of Mexico.

“There’s all these ticking time bombs out there rusting,” Henderson says. “And it’s inshore too. Thousands of wells and pipelines in the wetlands were abandoned with oil still in them, and because of rising sea levels and coastal erosion, now they’re sitting in salt water and they’re corroding and leaking.”

Leaks are a major problem for oil and gas manufacturers, with faulty equipment putting both the environment and employee safety at risk. ‘FLIR GF320 Thermal Camera Offers Reliable Gas Leak Detection in Biogas Facilities’ explores the methane leaks that plague German biogas facilities, and how next generation thermal imager gas technology is helping sites to inspect facilities, and find hidden gas leaks before they cause significant harm.

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