Gulf oil slick: is it Macondo or something else?

Ask some folks in the blogosphere and they’ll tell you that without a doubt BP’s Macondo well is spewing oil once again.

Ask people at BP and they’ll tell you it’s not their well. Ask the U.S. Coast Guard and they’ll say “we haven’t seen any yet.”

So who’s telling the truth?

Let’s start back at the beginning. 

The recent reports of new oil slicks in the Gulf began early in August when Stuart Smith, a Louisiana attorney who represents plaintiffs suing BP and others in connection with the 2010 spill, said BP had hired a fleet of 40 shrimping boats to skim oil from the waters over the Macondo site. He cited “reliable sources.”  BP has denied the report.

On Wings of Care, a non-profit that uses airplanes to help assist in wildlife rescue and habitat protection efforts, has spotted oil repeatedly in the area, however, keeping the initial reports alive.

During one flight the group spotted a vessel owned by Houston-based Helix Energy and said it was the Helix Producer 1, one of the vessels used to capture oil leaking from the Macondo well last year. That report seemed to support the idea that BP had a huge spill on its hands. It turned out the vessel spotted was actually the Helix Express, a pipelaying vessel that was doing work for another company.

Reporters from the Mobile Press-Register in Alabama took a boat out to the well site last week and videotaped oil bubbles rising to the surface. They also took samples of the oil to a lab, which concluded it had the same chemical make up as the oil from the Macondo. 

The U.S. Coast Guard said it didn’t spot the oil during flyovers and surface visits the next day. BP sent a remote controlled submarine to inspect the Macondo wellhead and the wellhead of the nearby relief well, and said neither shows signs of leaking. Video from the sub is expected to be posted on www.restorethegulf.gov in the coming days.

On Wings of Care’s most recent oil sighting was on Tuesday, when it spotted oil about 16.5 miles northeast of the Macondo site. BP repeated its prior statements that it doesn’t think the oil is from the Macondo. The Coast Guard is investigating the latest sighting, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

So, again, to some this chain of events is proof the well is still spilling.

Over at TheOilDrum.com, there’s a bit of discussion among the highly technical commenters that the oil could be coming from failed well casing in the Macondo. One of BP’s concerns as it was killing the well last year was of possibly breaching the piping below the mudline, allowing oil to flow into the surrounding formation and come up elsewhere on the sea floor.

This is possible, although as part of the well-kill process engineers pumped 5,000 feet of cement  into the Macondo from the top and bottom. At one point it sat with its cap completely off with no oil flowing as part of its plugging and abandonment process. It seems likely any breaches in the well casing would have been evident at that time.

The scientist who tested the oil for the Alabama paper speculates the oil could be surfacing from the Deepwater Horizon’s riser, the pipe that connected the well to the drilling rig and that now lies crumpled on the seafloor  near the wellhead. He also thought it could be coming from natural seeps.  (Yes, they really do exist).

Several ships have been hanging around the Macondo area in recent days, according to offshore tracking maps, including the vessels the Wes Bordelon and Rachel Bordelon. The Natural Resource Damage Assessment of the Gulf spill that is ongoing is using those ships (and others) for a variety of projects, including studying the natural seeps in the Gulf. Scientists on board those vessels and others are collecting sub-surface water and sediment samples from natural seeps, BP said this week. They plan to follow the oil from the seafloor seeps up to the surface. They are also collecting surface oil and water samples in areas where oil sheen is visible.

The On Wings of Care footage makes it clear there’s a significant slick there now, but it’s 16.5 miles away from the well site. That’s not exactly on top of the well. Given that there are some 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf it’s possible the most recent slick could be from another source as well.

Since few members of the general public were on the hunt for Gulf oil slicks prior to April 2010, when the Macondo well blew out, it’s hard to tell whether these oil slick reports are anomalies or the norm for the Gulf of Mexico.

But until proven otherwise, much of the blogosphere and Twitter-atti will assume any oil anywhere near Louisiana is from the Macondo.

11 Comments

  1. Keith Stone

    we seen forty of ‘em flyin’ in formation

    #1
  2. Tex

    Rumors are handy for those who expect more free handouts. They also give FuelFix more opportunity to spread the rumors.

    Oil slicks can be generated from:

    1. Merchant vessels emptying bilges. Highly likely.
    2. Fishing boats and other vessels. Highly likely.
    3. On purpose by special interests. Highly likely. Generates huge business for Gulf Coast lawyers and special interest groups.
    4. Macondo relief well no. 1. Highly Unlikely.
    5. Macondo relief well no. 2. Highly unlikely (did not reach reservoir)
    6. Macondo well. Highly unlikely. Was thoroughly killed and plugged.
    7. Seafloor. Highly unlikely. ROV and seismic would have detected.
    8. Horizon rig. Likely. Has thousands of gallons of fuel and oil onboard.
    9. Horizon riser. Unlikely. Contains a quantity of oil, but is stable on the seabed.
    10. Natural seeps. Always a source of hydrocarbons.

    #2
  3. Kristine

    free handouts? Tex you are STUPID what is unlikely is that your IQ is above 70

    #3
  4. Nick

    I work in the oil industry, but I’m also one of the few that’s very sensitive to the environment. Tex is full of crap. He obviously knows some stuff about subsea drilling, but he sounds just like Rush Limbaugh’s call out saying the Sierra Club was a likely culprit to the horizon rig disaster…and most of us know how foolish Rush is.

    A few merchant or fishing boats are not going to spill enough to make large slicks that are seen from multiple sources over multiple days. There is so much drilling going on in the Gulf…if anyone wants to blame a few boats or special interests before the minimally regulated drilling operations…they’ve got a problem.

    #4
  5. Uncle Scam

    This should be a big relief to the Tea Party loonies since the spotlight will now swing over to the “oil is evil” morons.

    #5
  6. Tex

    Kristine,

    You really hurt my feelings. I am sure you are a lot smarter than me and that your IQ is extremely high. Probably in the high 70’s. I am just a dumb Bubba. However, you must have had your head buried in the sand (or most likely somewhere else) since birth if you do not realize that a lot of people in this country live on handouts and scams. Just go to Google and do your homework.

    And to Nick. I assume you were addressing Rush. I agree with you. He is full of crap sometimes. Not always though.

    You would be surprised to see how big a slick a small volume of oil would make and the length of time it would stay visible. One vessel is certainly capable of creating a substantial size oil slick.

    I believe you and Kristine know, if you dear to take your blinders off, that a substantial number of oil slicks are generated by merchant shipping. Other sources are various boats and ships. You will be surprised to find out how little oil comes from spills from drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

    I do not doubt for a minute that we have groups and individuals in this region who would find it extremely beneficial to see Macondo oil in the Gulf. Remember, Macondo has made a lot of millionaires and will continue to do so for years. Anyway, I am just a dumb Bubba so what the heck do I know?

    #6
  7. Microbiology

    Maybe the casing was affected by the recent earthquake activity on the east coast. The intraplate earthquake in VA could have caused vibrations or changes that compromised the well casing. No one really planned for earthquakes (but they DID plan for walruses!) in the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t know what politics has to do with it, there is oil or there isn’t. Bad stuff happens. sometimes it’s our fault and we should’ve prevented it and sometimes it’s just unforeseeable. We’ve got to stop hating each other over ideas. Ideas are what built this country and ALL of our universities, corporations, patents, progress, and technology. Ideas made us great. Some weren’t great ideas but that’s how we grow as a society.

    #7
  8. John

    Drill baby drill. We are all doomed.

    #8
  9. Sandy

    Nice deflect Tex. I personally know folks who did clean up work with their own boats and are now rather sick. Made millionaires? Are you kidding? Not the Gulf region people and not those that volunteered their boats. Many have yet to receive a dime.

    Plus, the people out there just want their way of life back and the oil to be gone. Do large cargo ships leave oil slicks? Yes, when they are breached. That is not the case here.

    #9
  10. Dennis

    Nasa has satelite photos of slicks from natural seeps going back several years before the Macondo blowout.There have been tarballs on the beach for centuries before offshore drilling,from natural seeps.Ever hear of the Labrea tarpits?Just google tarpits and see what comes up.

    #10
  11. Kristine

    The amount of oil leaked was not a natural seep and the 1.84 million gallons of Corexit sprayed is a human made toxic cancer causing (among other disturbing health effects) the breaking of a crucial warm stream as the Loop Current has generated a chain reaction of unpredictable critical phenomena and instabilities due to strong non linearities which has now had serious consequences on the dynamics of the Gulf Stream thermoregulation activity of the Global Climate. GOOGLE THAT

    #11