[SouthWings] Best Practices in Aerial Observation of Oil Spills in Open Water


In the five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in April of 2010 — killing 11 people and leading to an uncontrolled 87-day oil gusher that covered vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico in oil — SouthWings and our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium have learned much about effective citizen reporting of pollution, especially related to oil spills in water. Thanks to the work of SkyTruth, we have also learned that there are oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico on an almost daily basis. While it certainly takes some practice to train your eyes to spot oil on water at a distance while flying, here are a few tips and some resources to get you started:

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The basics:

  • When to fly: fly during a time of low-angle light (early morning works well) for the best visibility of oil sheen on water. Pick a clear day with low wind and seas (waves break up spills and make them harder to spot).
  • Tips: we find that polarized sunglasses can make oil sheen harder to spot. Some people also recommend wearing non-reflective colors (black), especially if you’ll need to take photographs through plexiglass.
  • Photos: be sure to note altitude and direction photos are taken. If possible, include oil platforms, boats, etc. in photos for scale. Note color of oil sheen, as well as approximate dimensions and direction it seems to be moving. Noting coordinates of each spill is critical. Some cameras automatically GPS tag photos, but, if yours does not, a lower-tech option is to snap a photo of the coordinates on an external GPS unit; there are many higher-tech options that will geotag your photos with a bit of post-flight processing (details on a free option here). Document anything you see about a potential source of the problem and any information about a suspected responsible party.
  • Reporting spills: call the National Response Center (NRC), operated by the US Coast Guard, at 1-800-424-8802. It’s important to file NRC reports for spills of oil or potentially hazardous materials you notice (whether you find them on flights or otherwise), as this is the only way to ensure that the spill is included in the public, official government record.

Details and additional resources:

  • Training manual: before you fly, be sure to download and read Open Water Oil Identification Job Aid for Aerial Observation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It has great examples of what to look for and will help you avoid common false positives, such as seaweed clumps and cloud shadows.
  • Checklist: printable oil observation checklist from NOAA here.
  • Estimating spill volume: the color of the oil sheen varies with thickness of the oil spill. Gray sheen is the thinnest, followed by rainbow sheen and then metallic sheen. A thicker oil spill will have a darker color closer to “true” oil color. There are a variety of standards for making oil spill volume estimates based on visual assessments, so always state which standard you’re using if you make a volume estimate. The Bonn Agreement Oil Appearance Code is a scientifically rigorous and straightforward option.

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Here are a few great examples of Gulf Monitoring Consortium collaboration on aerial monitoring from Gulf Restoration Network, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, and Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

If you’re a pilot and would be interested in volunteering to fly with Gulf Monitoring Consortium members, please contact David Moore at SouthWings: david@southwings.org.

Photos: Jeffrey Dubinsky for Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper (top of page); Jonathan Henderson for Gulf Restoration Network (bottom of page). Flights provided by SouthWings.

Aerial Photos Document Wetland Damage from Oil and Gas Activity

Source: https://healthygulf.org/201404072243/blog/storm-protection-/-coastal-issues/birds-eye-view-damning-photos-revealedTaken on a SouthWings flight over the Mississippi River Delta with Gulf Restoration Network, these photos by Jonathan Henderson link visible wetlands damage to specific permits that oil and gas companies obtained for drilling at these sites in coastal Louisiana.

Annotated aerial photo set available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/healthygulf/sets/72157643594038754/

The straight lines in this photo (right) are examples of the canals that oil and gas companies dredge through wetlands to access well sites. These artificial canals disrupt wetland hydrology and exacerbate or cause wetlands loss. A study conducted by the US Geological Survey found that oil and gas activities caused 36% of the coastal land loss that occurred in Louisiana from 1932 to 1990.

Read more about this from Jonathan Henderson here.

Oil and Gas Leaks in the Gulf – Business as Usual

On September 30, 2013 the Gulf Monitoring Consortium conducted a monitoring flight of south-east Louisiana and found what it always finds; oil and gas operations spilling oil and other pollutants into the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana coastal wetlands. Here are some highlights, or perhaps, “lowlights” from the flight:

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

The slick from the still leaking Taylor wells off of the Mississippi River delta stretched into the distance as usual and reminded the passengers of the BP oil disaster. This oil has been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico since 2004. An NRC report was attempted to be made by GMC but was rejected because NRC reports are also filed daily by Taylor. The NRC report for Sept. 30 can be seen here: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/9248a2f7-f0dc-349c-b43d-7aa44524e08e To learn more about the Taylor leak go to: http://blog.skytruth.org/2013/06/9-years-countless-gallons-spilled-no.html and http://lmrk.org/lmrk-news-feed/judge-denies-taylor-energy-motion-to-dismiss-clean-water-act-violations-suit/

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

A sizable oil slick was seen south of Port Fourchon near a Chevron platform and appears that it could be from a leaking pipeline below the surface. Reported to the NRC by GMC: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/318c5b35-3b82-3833-8111-6d77c4b2a56d There does not appear to be an NRC report from the responsible party.


A badly leaking platform in East Bay near wells owned by EPL Oil & Gas and Shell. Submitted to the NRC by GMC: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/09b9a069-f208-3f08-92cd-0606a3e53746 This appears to be the NRC report submitted by EPL Oil & Gas: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/87b6e429-9424-3c7a-b0eb-c36a8b1ccb27 with the cause of the leak being reported as internal corrosion from a flow line.

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

Oil and gas wells also produce wastewater called “produced water” which often contains high levels of salts, chemicals from drilling fluids, and naturally occuring radioactive material. The state of Louisiana allows produced waters from oil and gas rigs in Louisiana State waters to be discharged directly into the Gulf of Mexico without any treatment. Due to a lawsuit brought by Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) the court has ordered the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to examine the impacts of produced waters on Louisiana’s environment.

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

A leaking oil well that appears to be owned by Apache Corporation near Golden Meadow. Submitted to the NRC by GMC: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/9dec11d3-84ea-3942-b4ef-1e8cc54f8fe7 This appears to be the NRC report submitted by Apache Corporation on the day after our flight (Oct. 1) for the leak: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/2f638365-70c9-3851-a2a9-a5b334d785e9 with the cause of the leak being reported as a corroded flow line. The Gulf environment is highly corrosive to metals.

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

Louisiana coastal wetlands cut into shreds by oil and gas activity. A lawsuit brought by a levee authority in South East Louisiana against oil and gas companies has re-ignited the debate over wether oil and gas companies should be held responsible for the damge that they have caused to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.

The flight was provided by GMC member SouthWings and piloted by Bruce McGregor. NRC reports and additional photo documentation made by Jonathan Henderson of Gulf Restoration Network and photo documentation made by Jeffrey Dubinsky of Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. Pre-flight NRC analysis by SkyTruth.

To see all of the photos from this flight go to: