Taylor Energy oil spill may be considerably worse than first thought

JP Casey 28 June 2019 (Last Updated June 28th, 2019 11:46)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released a report into the impacts of the 2004 Taylor Energy Company (TEC) oil spill, which has found that the destroyed Saratoga oil facility may have been leaking more than a thousand times as much oil into the Gulf of Mexico than previously thought.

Taylor Energy oil spill may be considerably worse than first thought
The NOAA report concludes that around a thousand times as much oil as first thought was leaked into the Gulf of Mexico following the 2004 disaster. Credit: Martarano Steve, USFWS

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released a report into the impacts of the 2004 Taylor Energy Company (TEC) oil spill, which has found that the destroyed Saratoga oil facility may have been leaking more than a thousand times as much oil into the Gulf of Mexico than previously thought.

The report, ‘An Integrated Assessment of Oil and Gas Release into the Marine Environment at the Former Taylor Energy MC20 Site’, was funded by the US Departments of the Interior and Commerce, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and featured input from researchers at TFI-Brooks International, Florida State University and Florida International University.

The document details a method of water analysis that used a new device known as a “bubblometer” to monitor the densities of oil droplets and gas bubbles in the waters surrounding the rig that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan. This new technique enabled scientists to calculate the rate at which oil and gas were entering the water.

Researchers have used the bubblometer to estimate that up to 108 barrels of oil per day had leaked into the water in the 15 years since the accident, a volume equivalent to 4,536gal. This rate of leaking would put the total volume of oil leaked by the accident at around 25 million gallons (Mgal), less than the 168Mgal spilled in the Deepwater Horizon accident, but still enough oil to cause vast environmental damage.

Responses to the accident have been dogged by inconsistencies over the extent of the damage. Last year, TEC dismissed a “deeply-flawed” report produced by independent geoscience consultant Oscar Garcia-Pineda, which used analysis of satellite imagery to conclude that up to 697 barrels of oil had been spilled per day, a figure which led to the US Coast Guard ordering TEC to contain the spill.

The NOAA figure, however, is considered to be the most accurate due to the new bubble video analysis technique, which puts the total spillage at around one thousand times greater than the volume of oil leaked according to Taylor Energy, which had claimed that between 2.4gal and 4gal of oil had been released into the gulf, based on an older method of water composition analysis the NOAA report called an “acoustic survey method”.

TEC further claimed that what the NOAA calls “oil-soaked sediment” contributed to the levels of oil recorded by the analysis, rather than oil leaked from the Saratoga facility. The company also called the gas polluting the area “biogenic in nature,” suggesting that the high levels of oil and gas in the waters are not related to the 2004 accident, but are the results of natural processes.

However, the NOAA report concludes that “the results of this study contradict these conclusions by TEC.”

The publication of the report has renewed interest in the accident, with environmental law firm Earthjustice announcing plans on Twitter to represent local advocacy group Healthy Gulf in a lawsuit against TEC.

The incident has also raised awareness of the danger of mudslides for offshore operations, with the Saratoga platform damaged by mudslides caused by Hurricane Ivan. Despite the obvious dangers of the phenomenon, many offshore operations remain vulnerable to the threat of mudslides, and there is hope that the ongoing investigation into the TEC disaster will encourage other operators to invest in protection against this danger.