SouthWings conducted a flight for the Gulf Monitoring Consortium on April 10. The Gulf Monitoring Consortium is a unique partnership of SouthWings, SkyTruth, and the Waterkeeper Alliance that is systematically monitoring oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico with satellite images and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and on-the-water observation and sampling. For this flight, New Orleans-based volunteer pilot Lance Rydberg flew with Paul Orr, the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, in his two-seat Citabria. Their route took them from New Orleans, parallel to the Mississippi River to the gulf and back, passing over several points of interest. (You can read more about this flight on the SouthWings blog here.)
The Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) is a rapid response alliance that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information acquired from space, from the air, and from the surface in order to investigate and expose pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Coast region. Our members engage in systematic monitoring of oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico using satellite images and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and on-the-ground and in-the-water observation and sampling to identify, locate and track new and ongoing pollution from fossil fuel extraction, transport, and production.
GMC Member Organizations:
The Consortium’s long-term goal is to ensure that industry and government pollution reports are accurate, credible and understandable, so that the true state of fossil fuel pollution related to energy development is widely acknowledged and incorporated into public policy and decision-making.
The Consortium’s work over the six months of its existence is preliminary and, to date, it has produced more questions than answers. For instance, although we have determined that the number and size of oil spills in the Gulf are greatly underreported, we have significant questions about whether it is possible to determine the magnitude of the underreporting. Likewise, we have significant questions about the best way to optimize use of the resources available to us, especially satellite imagery, and maximize the information obtainable from them. And, of course, the fundamental question of the cumulative impact of these releases remains unanswered. We hope to make progress toward answering these and more questions as the Consortium continues to refine its work.
In its first six months, the Gulf Monitoring Consortium uncovered systematic problems with the reporting of oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. These problems include the failure of responsible parties to report oil spills, underreporting of spills, and inconsistencies in the collection and publication of spill reports by the federal National Response Center. You can read more about our Key Findings here or read our full report.
Gulf Monitoring Consortium members use a variety of methods to document and evaluate oil spill events: continuously monitoring official oil and hazardous materials spill reports collected and distributed by the National Response Center (NRC), processing and analyzing satellite images, conducting aerial overflights to acquire photographs and video, launching “sea-truth” expeditions on the water for direct observation and sampling, and analyzing other available data using GIS and interactive mapping tools. Using this innovative combination of techniques, Consortium members have discovered deficiencies in the process created to hold parties responsible for oil pollution accountable, and minimize the frequency and severity of oil pollution in the Nation’s waters:
Lack of reporting of oil spills by responsible parties
Many of the pollution reports submitted to the NRC come directly from industry as they are the ones most likely to be near offshore oil infrastructure when an oil spill occurs and because polluters are required by law to report their spills. However, two of the spills we investigated were not reported to the NRC. This strongly suggests that oil spills occur more frequently than regulators and the public realize.
Underreporting by responsible parties
In addition to the lack of reporting, chronic underreporting of oil spills makes it impossible for the public and decision makers to understand the true scope of pollution caused by oil and gas exploration and production. NRC reports lacking estimates of the amount of oil spilled are common. Between October 1, 2010 and September 30, 2011 a total of 2903 oil or refined petroleum (e.g. diesel fuel) spills were reported in the Gulf region. Seventy-seven percent (2221) of those reports did not include an estimate of the quantity of oil spilled. Forty-five percent (1311) identify a suspected responsible party – a strong indicator that those reports were submitted by the actual polluters – and of those, nearly half (620) do not include any spill amount.
Inconsistencies in National Response Center collection and publication of oil spill reports
In two cases that we are aware of, information provided to the NRC by members of the public was incompletely or incorrectly captured in the resulting NRC reports. In the first case, a passenger aboard a SouthWings overflight of the Gulf on June 10, 2011 reported an oil slick emanating from a wellhead in Breton Sound. The resulting NRC report (#97928) published that same day includes an incorrect latitude coordinate and is missing critical information about the suspected source of the leak, describing the incident only as follows: “Caller stated that there is an unknown sheen in the water, the cause is unknown.” Comparison of the lack of information in the NRC report with the fairly detailed information and photos published by the passenger in his blog on June 13 suggests that the NRC may not be accurately capturing important information provided by concerned citizens. In the second case, a local resident observed tarballs and oil on several occasions on the beaches near Pensacola. She filed several reports with the NRC, providing precise latitude-longitude location coordinates obtained with a handheld GPS unit in decimal degrees. The NRC mistakenly interpreted the coordinates as degrees-minutes-seconds, resulting in very inaccurate locations for the reported sightings of oil. These reports (for example, #990418, which gives an incorrect location far onshore, about 15 miles from the correct location provided by the caller) would be useless to responders.