(WIRED) ...Even a few thousand gallons of spilled oil is consequential. Even more consequential are more than 30,000 of those so-called small spills each year. Which is probably the bare minimum spill estimate, says Manthos of SkyTruth. Really, it's hard to know if this figure is complete, and even harder to calculate the volume of oil being leaked. Some new oil equipment is smart enough to know when, and measure how much, it leaks. But those sensors can malfunction. Plus most oil infrastructure is way older. Most of the time oil companies, activists, and the US Coast Guard are all doing some version of educated guessing.
The volumes that oil companies and others do calculate and report get compiled in a National Response Center database. And if you ask an oil lobbyist, it all totals to about one million gallons per year. And those oil company-provided numbers are what the US Coast Guard relies on to levy fines against those that spill. Which is a problem, because oil companies have a financial incentive to lowball the spill estimates, because the fines levied against them often triple if they cross that major spill threshold. "It's the fox watching the henhouse," Manthos says.
At SkyTruth, Manthos uses satellite imagery and remote sensing data to get a much more definitive picture of spill size and color than you can get from sticking your head out of a helicopter door. "We make an estimate and compare it to estimate they submit, and they usually don't add up," he says. "An environmentally concerned person might have a tendency to overreport. If the report comes from someone working on a oil platform, those volumes are frequently underreported." And does not account for the many spills that go unnoticed somewhere along the 2.4 million miles of oil pipe in the United States. "There's so much infrastructure and no one monitoring it," says Jonathan Henderson, founder and president of environmental watchdog organization Vanishing Earth. "It's impossible to say how much damage is being done."
Not for lack of trying. When SkyTruth contributed to a study comparing oil companies' estimates to more objective satellite data, they found that on average, the volume of oil spilled is at least 13 times higher than reported—Thirteen million gallons is more than an Exxon Valdez per year. And oil companies don't need to be accurate. "There are penalties for not reporting something that you should have seen," Manthos says. "But no penalties for underreporting."
The Coast Guard's self-defense on these enforcement matters isn't too convincing. "The Coast Guard would likely seek enforcement action," says Lieutenant Katie Braynard. She would not comment more specifically.
Aging Infrastructure and Poor Regulation
American oil infrastructure is old. On this map, each dot represents a still-standing platform or rig. The lighter the dot, the older the construction. The oldest date back to the 1960s. You can click on a rig to see the installation date.