The fierce, 150-mile-per-hour winds unleashed by Hurricane Ida last week left behind oil and petrochemical spills on land and at sea, with aerial photography and satellite images capturing some of the impacts in the aftermath of the storm.
“The powerful hurricane, which swept through one of the nation’s largest chemical, petroleum, and natural gas hubs when it made landfall on Sunday [August 29], has heightened concerns over the vulnerability of the region’s fossil fuel infrastructure to intensifying storms, which are linked to global warming driven by emissions from oil and gas,” the New York Times reports.
The Times says an aerial survey by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed that a “black expanse and rainbow sheen of oil spanning at least 10 miles was spreading in coastal waters about two miles off Port Fourchon, an oil and gas hub.” The Associated Press, which first published photos of the offshore spill, says a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency survey also found an “apparent oil spill” at a Phillips 66 refinery along the Mississippi River.
NOAA photography “showed significant flooding to the massive Phillips 66 Alliance Refinery in Belle Chasse, Louisiana,” the news agency writes. “In some sections of the refinery, a rainbow sheen and black streaks were visible on the water leading toward the river.”
In initial media statements, the company said “some water” was inside the refinery, but didn’t answer questions about environmental hazards. “Only after the AP sent the company photos Wednesday showing extensive flooding and what appeared to be petroleum in the water, the company confirmed it had ‘discovered a sheen of unknown origin in some flooded areas of Alliance Refinery’.” While a Phillips spokesperson described the spill as a “sheen of unknown origin”, a state call log obtained by AP had the company referring to “heavy oil in floodwater”.
The call log “also contained a call from an oyster harvester concerned that water contamination from the refinery was fouling environmentally sensitive beds downriver.”
In the Gulf, “the NOAA photos showed a black and brown slick floating near a large rig with the name Enterprise Offshore Drilling painted on its helipad,” AP adds. “The company, based in Houston, said Thursday that its Enterprise 205 rig was safely secured and evacuated prior to the storm’s arrival and that it did not suffer any damage.”
But AP couldn’t readily verify that, after a federal regulator said the rig was located in waters under state jurisdiction, and Louisiana Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Patrick Courreges said the state had no physical means to investigate the spill. “It’s going to be a while for us before we can make our way out there,” Courreges told the news agency. ”We don’t have planes, helicopters or Gulf-seaworthy boats.”
The Times report, meanwhile, focuses on a crude oil spill believed to have originated with an oil pipeline that belongs to Houston-based Talos Energy. As of Saturday, a U.S. Coast Guard official said, the company was using skimmers to collect the oil and containment booms to try and stop its spread, but had only recovered 42 gallons so far.
“It’s a substantial leak that requires further investigation,” said consulting scientist Oscar Garcia-Pineda of Gulf Breeze, Florida-based Water Mapping, who’s led past research on the use of satellite and aerial images for oil spills. “I see an indication of thick heavy oil, which is the main dark feature, surrounded by a rainbow sheen.”
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Cathleen E. Jones told the Times the images looked like very thick oil, but further study was called for.
John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who was first to spot the origin of the Talos spill, said online data access had made his research possible.
“The fact that it was possible to find this spill is owed to the fact that NOAA made aerial imagery publicly available,” he told the Times. “Had NOAA not made that public, it would have been a lot harder to uncover what is clearly an unfolding environmental problem.”
Naomi Yoder, a staff scientist at New Orleans-based Healthy Gulf, said the hurricane unleashed widespread environmental damage. “The corporations that are poisoning our communities must be held accountable, and must reverse this catastrophe.”
Citing a 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Times says oil and gas companies have been allowed to leave about 18,000 miles of old pipelines along the seafloor of the Gulf, many of them “abandoned without cleaning or burial”.
Reuters says insurance companies expect to pay out at least US$1 billion in claims for hurricane damage to offshore oil rigs, just a fraction of the $18-billion hit they can look forward to from the full impact of the storm. Industry media said it could take weeks to get some of the stricken offshore facilities back in production, with flooding and power outages impeding fossils’ repair efforts and crews available to restart only a quarter of the 288 oil and gas platforms that had to be evacuated.