Monday, November 2, 2009

From Bad to Worse

I'm not sure how much air time this "disaster" is receiving in the rest of the world, but a off-shore oil well has been leaking oil and gas into the Timor Sea since August 21st.

A really good summary of the situation in this article - reproduced here:

November 02, 2009 09:13am

AS the Montara spill continues to grow as one of Australia's biggest environmental disasters, environment reporter Narelle Towie examines the crisis off our coast.

What happened?
On August 21 at 5.30am, PTTEP Australasia reported a sweet crude oil and gas leak at the Montara wellhead in the Timor Sea, 250km northwest of Truscott in WA.

The West Atlas mobile drilling rig is sitting above the leaking pipe. When the leak began the 69 workers on board were evacuated.

PTTEP has refused to confirm what caused a concrete and rubber plug at the end of a well pipe 3.6km below the sea floor to crack - sparking the leak - because the incident is now the subject of a Government inquiry.

Who is responsible for the oil spill?
The West Atlas is a mobile offshore drilling rig owned and operated by Atlas Drilling. But the rig is leased to PTTEP Australasia.

PTTEP is Thailand's national petroleum exploration and production company and is one of the nation's largest publicly listed companies.

PTTEP is working to plug the flow while the Australian Maritime Safety Authority is responsible for managing and cleaning up the resulting oil slick.

How many days has it been since the oil escaped?
The leak started 71 days ago.

What sort of oil is it?
Sweet light crude oil is a type of petroleum that contains less than 0.5 per cent sulphur, giving it a ``sweet'' taste and odour.

High-quality crude oil is processed into gasoline, kerosene and diesel.

Why wasn't a boom used in the first days of the leak to contain the slick?
Booms are used to contain spilt oil close to shore or in areas not affected by waves or currents, such as harbours. The oil is then cleared with skimmers similar to vacuum machines.

Before now, AMSA says it has never tested a boom in an offshore environment.

However, booms are being trialled in the clean-up and so far have been successful because of seasonably calm waters.

Conservation group Environs Kimberley director Martin Pritchard said AMSA waited too long to test the booms.

"We are very concerned that dispersants are toxic and therefore could be doing more harm than good,'' he said.

“We were surprised that there were no booms available to contain the leak when it first happened. This could have determined whether dispersants were needed to be used at all.”

What is the extent of the slick?
The Montara oil spill is one of the biggest in Australian history and the longest flowing. But reports on the size of the slick differ.

PTTEP would not provide an estimate of the extent of ocean affected by the leak.

AMSA also said it was unable to provide an estimate of polluted areas because the slick was constantly moving.

The Wilderness Society said oil had contaminated 50,000sq km of ocean.

Based on estimates provided by PTTEP - that 400 barrels of oil have leaked into the ocean a day - 4,515,600 litres of oil has spilled from the leaking well head so far.

But, The Wilderness Society believes this figure to be much higher.

The biggest spill in Australian history occurred in Victoria's Port Phillip Bay in 1903 when the Petriana ran aground, spilling 1300 tonnes of bulk oil on to the beach.

Has the oil reached the shores of Roti and has it damaged fish and seaweed farms there?
Farmers on Indonesia's Roti Island, 500km northeast of Australia, say oil from the Montara field has damaged more than 1000ha of seaweed ready to harvest.

Hundreds of local fishermen also claim thousands of fish have been killed as a result of the spill, massively decreasing stocks of red snapper in the area.

Normally clear waters off the island have reportedly turned a milky-white colour, emitting a rancid odour.

PTTEP claim information they have received from AMSA and satellite imaginary shows the slick to be 250km from the Indonesian coast.

“The basic information is what we are hearing and what information we have is not the same,” Mr Martins said.

To what extent has wildlife been affected by the slick?
PTTEP's consultant environmental scientist John Wardrop said 25 oil-coated birds had been discovered and 17 had died.

But WWF Australia's conservation director Gilly Llewellyn said a recent survey found hundreds of migratory seabirds, turtles, sea snakes and dolphins had been found in the slick-affected area.

Up to 15 species of whales and dolphins, more than 30 species of seabirds and five species of turtles were potential victims of the Montara Field oil spill.

“New estimates show up to 30,000 individual sea snakes and 16,000 turtles may be found in the area affected by the slick,” the conservation group say in an online press release.

"We need to shatter the myth that an oil spill only affects marine wildlife when it washes up on our beaches," Dr Llewellyn said.

A report commissioned by the federal Department of the Environment on the impacts of the spill on birds, cetaceans and marine reptiles is inconclusive. "It was impossible to ascertain how many individual species were adversely affected,'' the report said.

"However, the presence of dying birds and dead sea snakes suggests that there is an immediate risk to species utilising the water that has been affected by the oil slick.''

Is the slick likely to move towards Australian shores?
Seasonal changes are likely to push the slick towards the WA coast, Mr Wardrop conceded.

Still conditions and northeasterly winds would change in the next few months as the cyclone season arrived -- from November to April -- potentially moving the slick towards the Australian coastline.

What other options are there to fix the leak sooner?
The simplest, but far more dangerous, method of plugging the leak would be to work directly on the exposed wellhead from the West Atlas rig.

PTTEP said this option wasn't chosen because of the risk to human life.

``What looks like smoke is gas with oil and water in it and, of course, with a gas cloud there, any spark has the potential for ignition,'' a spokesman said.

``It was just deemed too dangerous.''

Why didn't the company accept help from Woodside when the leak first started rather than shipping in its own relief rig?
The relief rig, which took weeks to ship to Montara from Indonesia, is called a jack-up rig. It stays on top of the water because it is pinned to the sea floor and is therefore able to support the heavy mud needed to plug the leak.

The rig offered by Woodside is a semi-submersible platform and would sink under the weight of the mud, PTTEP director Jose Martins said.

What has the spill cost the company?
PTTEP says it has spent $170 million on clean-up, a relief rig and costs associated with the incident.

This figure did not include the cost of oil lost in the spill. If 400 barrels a day had leaked into the ocean for 71 days, based on present prices, the company had lost more than $US2 million in sales since August 21

If this wasn't bad enough, the rig and well head platform is now on fire (article and video clip here).

Also check out for additional satellite images and maps.

Hopefully a solution will be found soon and the spill can be contained without any more drama.

1 comment:

Old NFO said...

Ouch... It is always interesting how the eco-nazis predict gloom and doom, and subscribe to the chicken little theories... Yes there will be some damage, but I can't believe the companies are not doing everything they can SAFELY to control/end the spill and leak.