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 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, 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.