Al Jazeera has spotted a large oil
sheen near the infamous Macondo 252 well.
In September 2011, Al Jazeera spotted a large swath of silvery
oil sheen located roughly 19km northeast of the now-capped well.
But now, on February 29, Al Jazeera conducted another
over-flight of the area and found a larger area of sea covered
in oil sheen in the same location.
Oil trackers with the organisation On Wings of Care, who have
been monitoring the new oil since mid-August 2011, have for
months found rainbow-tinted slicks and thick silvery globs of
oil consistently visible in the area.
“This is the same crescent
shaped area of oil and sheen I’ve been seeing here since the
middle of last August,” Bonny Schumaker, president and pilot
of On Wings of Care, told Al Jazeera while flying over the
Schumaker has logged approximately
500 hours of flight time monitoring the area around the Macondo
well, and has flown scientists from NASA, the US Geological
Survey (USGS), and oil chemistry scientists to observe
conditions resulting from BP’s oil disaster that began in April
When Al Jazeera flew to the area on September 11, 2011, the oil
sheen was approximately 25km long and 10 to 50 meters wide, at a
location roughly 19km northeast of the Macondo 252 well.
On the recent over flight, the area covered in oil sheen was
approximately 35km long, and ranged from 20 to 100 meters wide
in approximately the same location. At times, fumes from the oil
filled the aircraft, even at an altitude of 350 meters.
Schumaker, a career physicist with NASA who retired in 2011, is
deeply concerned because she has spotted oil in the same
location now at least 15 times since last August.
Edward Overton, professor emeritus at Louisiana State
University’s environmental sciences department, examined data
from oil samples taken from this area last September and
confirmed that the oil is from the Macondo reservoir.
Experts believe the oil is likely to be from a seep in the
seabed, but there is debate about what caused the seep, as many
believe it may well have been caused by BP’s blowout well and
the failed attempts to cap it during spring 2010….
Overton, who is also a National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) contractor, told Al Jazeera in September,
“After examining the data, I
think it’s a dead ringer for the MC252 [Macondo Well] oil,
as good a match as I’ve seen.”
He explained that the samples were
analyzed and compared to,
“the known Macondo oil
fingerprint, and it was a very, very close match”.
While not ruling out the possibility
that oil could be seeping out of the giant reservoir, which
would be the worst-case scenario, Overton believed the oil
currently reaching the surface was probably from oil that was
trapped in the damaged rigging on the seafloor.
However, given the fact that the oil sheen has existed in this
area since at least as early as August 2010 and is continuing,
the likelihood of it being residual oil from the Deepwater
Horizon or damaged rigging is now slim.
Other scientists remain concerned that the new oil could be
coming from a seep from the same reservoir the Macondo well was
drilled into. The oilfield, located 64km off the coast of
Louisiana, is believed to hold as much 50 million barrels of
producible oil reserves.
Natural oil seepage in the Gulf of Mexico is a common phenomenon
and can cause sheens, but the current oil and sheen is suspect
due to its size and location near the Macondo well.
“From what I’ve seen, this new
oil and sheen definitely seemed larger than typical natural
seepages found in the Gulf of Mexico,” Dr Ira Leifer, a
University of California scientist who is an expert on
natural hydrocarbon oil and gas emissions from the seabed
told Al Jazeera.
“Because of the size and its
location, there is a greater concern that should require a
larger public investigation.”
New Orleans attorney Stuart Smith,
who litigates against major oil companies, believes the burden
of proof about where the oil is coming from lies on BP.
“Our worst fears have proven
true,” Smith said of the seep. “We have a chronic leak
scenario caused by the Macondo well, and it is time for the
feds and BP to come clean and tell the American public the
truth. Unless/until the government and BP explain in a
verifiable manner what the source of this oil is, in my
opinion any thoughts of settlement are way premature.”
[US Coast Guard Captain Jonathan
Burton] said after seeing footage from the submersible of BP’s
cap, he does not believe the Macondo well, or the relief wells
BP drilled to stop it, are leaking, and he feels the oil is from
“Research shows the Macondo area
is ripe for seeps, and I think that’s what we’re looking at
here, and it’s coming from the same reservoir,” Burton said.
Burton, who was somewhat defensive
for BP, added that he thinks that,
“the seep was there all along”,
and “doesn’t know why BP has been silent on it.”
Coast Guard Lieutenant Eric
Brooks, also present in Al Jazeera’s meeting with Captain
Burton, later provided a link to [images of natural seeps]…
However, the figures shown on the website itself are for
areas quite far west and south of the area in question.”
“We can tell you that we
recently sent a remote operated submarine down to inspect
the Macondo well cap and the relief well cap,” Mueller,
added, “Both are intact and show no evidence of any oil
leak. So no oil is leaking from the Macondo well.”
But experts believe that is exactly
the problem, since the work BP conducted to cap the gushing well
could have caused oil to begin seeping from the reservoir in an
area away from the capped well.
Leifer remains concerned that the seep, given its proximity to
the Macondo well, could be oil in the reservoir that entered a
layer of mud and has migrated into a natural pathway that leads
to the seabed.
“I see these new observations
[of the seep] as the canary in the coal mine that indicates
something could be changing at the seabed and should not be
ignored and hope it goes away,” he said.
Given Overton’s findings that the
oil does appear to be from Macondo, Leifer added,
“It’s not necessary to be
alarmist, but this is something that deserves setting an
alarm off to investigate”.
Of Captain Burton’s comments about
the oil coming from the Macondo reservoir, Smith had this to
“What is significant in my mind,
as an attorney, is that a US government official admitted
this is Macondo oil, and to me, absent BP producing evidence
this seep existed prior to their drilling, they therefore
must have caused it.”
Leifer’s concerns are that if the
seep increases in volume,
“It could be a persistent,
significant, continuous oil spill again, and that would
require BP to go back and re-drill, and block off the
pipeline even deeper than they already did, or else they
would be liable for whatever the emissions are, forever,
because it’s not going to stop for a very long time”.
Dr Ian MacDonald, a professor of
biological oceanography at Florida State University who uses
satellite remote sensing to locate natural oil releases on the
ocean surface, confirmed that there are natural seeps in this
region of the Gulf of Mexico, but believes more investigation is
necessary in order to determine the cause and source of this
“The question for science is:
Are the rates of seepage consistent with what they were
prior to the blowout?” MacDonald told Al Jazeera. “Is the
amount of oil we’re seeing now unusual with respect to
historic levels? Can this oil be traced back to these
[Leifer said] “There is natural migration in the area around
Macondo, and one of the sites we’ve studied is MC118, about
18km away,” but added, “The concern is not that human
activities caused a fault, but by creating pathways outside
the [well] casing, they are allowing oil to travel along the
well pipe then migrate horizontally until it intersects an
existing vertical fault migration pathway, then reach the
His concern, shared by other
scientists, is the possibility that the volume of oil flowing
from the seep, if it is related to the Macondo area, could
increase with time.
“We should be having sonar works
done of that area, and the public needs to be informed of
the findings,” Leifer said. “That survey should be repeated
every three or six months to confirm that the seepage is not
becoming larger and more widespread.”
“I don’t understand why we’re seeing so much more oil out
there right now than we’ve seen in the past,” MacDonald
said. “We need to dig in and investigate and see what is
Smith agreed, and took it a step
“We demand a National Academy of
Science investigation into this seep,” and added, “BP has
had six months to come up with evidence to prove they did
not cause this seep. Considering that Al Jazeera and
Associated Press have reported this [seep], you’d think BP
would produce evidence they did not cause it.”
The possibility that brings the
greatest concern is that oil is leaking from the reservoir
straight out of the ground. This situation could be impossible
to stop, because the vent would increase in size over time due
to the highly pressurized reservoir.
Few people in the world know more
about oil drilling disasters than Dr. Robert Bea.
Bea teaches engineering at the University of California
Berkeley, and has 55 years of experience in engineering and
management of design, construction, maintenance, operation, and
decommissioning of engineered systems including offshore
platforms, pipelines and floating facilities.
Bea has worked for many years in
governmental and quasi-governmental roles, and has been a
governmental adviser concerning
disasters. He worked for 16 years as a top mechanical engineer
and manager for Shell Oil, and has worked with Bechtel and the
Army Corps of Engineers.
One of the world’s top experts in
offshore drilling problems, Bea
member of the
Deepwater Horizon Study Group,
and has been interviewed by news media around the world
concerning the BP oil disaster.
WB: Is it possible that
this fractured, subsea salt geology will make it difficult
to permanently kill the oil leak using relief wells?
Bea: Yes, it could. The Santa Barbara channel seeps
are still leaking, decades after the oil well was supposedly
capped. This well could keep leaking for years.
Scripps mapped out seafloor seeps in the area of the well
prior to the blowout. Some of the natural seeps penetrate
10,000 to 15,000 feet beneath the seafloor. The oil will
follow lines of weakness in the geology.
The leak can travel
several horizontal miles from the location of the leak.
[In other words, the geology beneath the seafloor is so
fractured, with soft and unstable salt formations, that we
may never be able to fully kill the well even with relief
wells. Instead, the loss of containment of the oil reservoir
caused by the drilling accident could cause oil to leak out
through seeps for years to come. See
this for further
WB: I have heard that BP is
underestimating the size of
the oil reservoir (and see
this). Is it possible that
the reservoir is bigger than BP is estimating, and so - if
not completely killed - the leak could therefore go on for
longer than most assume?
Bea: That’s plausible.
WB: The chief electronics technician on the Deepwater
Horizon said that the Macondo well was originally drilled in
another location, but that “going faster caused the bottom
of the well to split open, swallowing tools”, and that BP
abandoned that well. You’ve spoken to that technician and
looked into the incident, and concluded that “they damn near
blew up the rig.” [See
Do you know where that abandoned well location is, and do
you know if that well is still leaking?
Bea: The abandoned well is very close to the current
well location. BP had to file reports showing the location
of the abandoned well and the new well [with the Minerals
Management Service], so the location of the abandoned well
We don’t know if the abandoned well is leaking.
WB: Matthew Simmons
talked about a second
leaking well. There are rumors on the Internet that the
original well is still leaking. Do you have any information
that can either disprove or confirm that allegation?
Bea: There are two uncorroborated reports. One is
that there is a leak 400 feet West of the present well’s
surface location. There is another report that there is a
leak several miles to the West.
[Bea does not know whether either report is true at this
time, because BP is not sharing information with the
government, let alone the public.]