NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

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University of Washington Partners with NOAA to Research and Prepare for Changes in the Oil and Gas Industry

This is a guest post by the Emerging Risks Workgroup at the University of Washington in Seattle.

LNG Tanker Arctic Lady near shore.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has opened up natural gas production in the United States, to the point that industry is increasingly looking to export it as liquified natural gas (LNG) via tanker. (Photo: Amanda Graham/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License)

From fracking to oil trains, the landscape of oil production and transportation in North America has been undergoing a major transformation in recent years. This transformation has implications for how NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration prepares its scientific toolbox for dealing with oil spills. Our group of graduate students from the University of Washington partnered with NOAA on a project to identify major trends in the changes to risk in transporting oil and natural gas along U.S. coasts and major rivers.


To study these risks, we researched the trends that are changing the way in which petroleum is produced and transported in the United States. We also examined three high-profile incidents:

We reviewed the lessons learned from each of these responses and determined whether they also apply to the emerging risks we identified.

Research on Risks: Fracking, LNG, and Oil Trains

The largest catalyst for changes in the petroleum market in the U.S. is the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” combined with horizontal drilling. Fracking is a technique which forces fluids under great pressure through production wells to “fracture” rock formations and free greater amounts of crude oil or natural gas. This has drastically changed the amount of petroleum produced, where the petroleum is produced, and where it is transported.

Fracking also comes with its own transportation issues. The large amounts of wastewater from fracking operations are often transported or treated near waterways, increasing the risk for a spill of contaminated wastewater.

Fracking has increased the amount of natural gas production in the U.S., which is transported within North America as a gas through pipelines. However, with the increase in gas production, energy companies are looking to export some of this outside of North America as liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Several projects have been approved to export LNG, and several more are awaiting approval. LNG is currently transported by tanker, and with these new export projects, LNG tanker traffic will increase.

LNG is also being explored as a marine fuel option, which will require LNG bunkering infrastructure to supply the fuel needs of vessels that will run on LNG. Several LNG terminals and bunkering operations are in various stages of planning and development, and the presence of more vessels carrying LNG as a fuel or cargo will need to be addressed in future spill response planning.

Tanker rail cars over a wood bridge.

According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S. railroads shipping crude oil jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 carloads in 2013. (Photo: Roy Luck/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

Fracking has also led to greater amounts of crude oil produced in the U.S. Much of this new oil is being transported by rail, historically not a typical way to move lots of crude oil. This change in volume and mode of transportation for crude oil also presents risks for accidents. There have been several recent high-profile derailments of oil trains, many including fires or explosions.

The increase in crude oil transportation by rail is in large part a stopgap measure. First, because existing pipeline infrastructure isn’t available in certain parts of the country, including North Dakota and Wyoming, which are now producing crude oil. Second, because new pipelines take time to get approved and then constructed to serve new areas. Pipeline construction has increased significantly since 2008 but not without some issues.

All of this would be further complicated if the national ban on exporting crude oil (rather than refined oil) were lifted, an idea which has some supporters. This could change the amount and type of oil being transported by different modes to different locations, especially ports, and increase the risk of oil spills into nearby waterways.

Additional Risks and Recommendations

Offshore wind development and LNG infrastructure were also identified as potential risks that could further complicate petroleum production and transport in the United States. These developments could increase traffic in certain areas or place additional obstacles (i.e., wind turbines) in the path of vessels carrying petroleum products, potentially increasing the risk of spills. Additionally, the decrease in Arctic sea ice is changing oil exploration opportunities and shipping routes through the Arctic, which could shift the entire petroleum shipping picture in the U.S.

After analyzing these overall trends, we turned to recommendations from previous incidents involving oil exploration and spills. There were 248 recommendations made in the post-incident reports for the Cosco Busan, Deepwater Horizon, and Shell Kulluk. Out of these 248, we identified 29 recommendations that could apply in the context of these new, overall changes in petroleum transportation. These were divided into five major categories: contingency planning, equipment and responder training, industry oversight, funding, and public outreach and education.

Key Findings

Overall, we identified four major findings about petroleum production and transport:

  • Increased and more complex transportation risk.
  • Trends that hinder spill prevention and complicate spill response.
  • Lessons learned from past incidents are still valid for future responses.
  • There are several potential gaps in regulation, funding, planning, and coordination.

If you have any questions about the group, its members, our research, or would like to read any of our scoping documents, memos, or final paper, please visit our website at We are happy to answer any questions.

The Emerging Risks Workgroup (ERW) is a group of four graduate students from the University of Washington working with UW faculty advisor Robert Pavia and Incident Operations Coordinator Doug Helton of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. The students in the group are all part of the Environmental Management Certificate at UW’s Program on the Environment. Stacey Crecy is from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, and Andrew Cronholm, Barry Hershly, and Marie Novak are from the Evans School of Public Affairs. The Environmental Management Certificate culminates in a two-quarter capstone project that allows the student teams to work on a project for an outside client and then present their findings.

The ERW would like to thank our sponsor NOAA OR&R, and Doug Helton. We would also like to thank our UW faculty advisor, Robert Pavia of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, Anne DeMelle of the Program on the Environment, and all of the people that guided our research.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the federal government.

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Submit Your Comments: Studying Decades of Environmental Injuries at the Hanford Nuclear Site

This is a post by OR&R’s Charlene Andrade, Mary Baker, and Vicki Loe.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960. The N Reactor is in the foreground, with the twin KE and KW Reactors in the immediate background. The historic B Reactor, the world’s first plutonium production reactor, is visible in the distance. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Interesting things are happening at Hanford. After decades of nuclear production, years of cleanup, and chronic contamination, the time has come to begin restoring the land and natural resources of Hanford, Wash. That’s why NOAA, along with other agencies and tribes, has started a natural resource damage assessment and is now publishing a document for public review. The Draft Injury Assessment Plan [PDF] describes the first phase of the restoration process, which is to quantify harm to natural resources at the Hanford Nuclear Site.

For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the site, between 1944 and 1987, Hanford, located in eastern Washington state, produced plutonium for atomic weapons, starting with the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. During the Cold War years, the facilities grew to include nine nuclear reactors and associated processing plants. For decades, Hanford produced radioactive materials for Cold War-era military activities, commercial nuclear energy production, and nuclear medicine. These operations led to the release of radionuclides and contaminants into the arid landscape and the Columbia River, which borders the site, injuring the habitats, wildlife, and people’s ability to enjoy the area for recreational and cultural uses.

Cocooned F Reactor surrounded by grassland and hills at Hanford.

F Area is home to F Reactor, the third of Hanford’s nine plutonium production reactors built to produce plutonium for the nation’s defense program during both World War II and the Cold War. The reactor operated from 1945 to 1965 and was placed in interim safe storage in 2003. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Cleanup at the site began in 1989 and likely will continue well into the future. However, we are concerned about the chronic environmental impacts and believe there is a need to begin restoration now to offset the more than 30 years of injury. Our efforts are different than cleanup. Cleanup involves removing contaminated materials such as buildings, waste, and soil from the landscape.

Restoration, on the other hand, involves accounting for and offsetting the harm done to natural resources that continue to feel these impacts while waiting for full cleanup at the site. For example, during past operations at Hanford, leaks and overflows caused contaminants from nuclear reactors to flow directly into the Columbia River, and even though the facilities have long since been closed, the contaminants in the groundwater, such as chromium, have continued to leach into the river to the present day. These contaminants have reached Chinook salmon spawning grounds and the forage and resting areas for sensitive young salmon near the shoreline.

This is why NOAA, other agencies, and local tribes believe it is time to begin restoration planning.

The Draft Injury Assessment Plan, which is available for your review, is the first step in planning restoration. We are required by law to describe and quantify harm to impacted habitats and species before we can begin restoration on land or in the river, and we have created a Draft Injury Assessment Plan to accomplish that.

F Reactor sits across the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Site.

The now-remediated F Reactor, a former plutonium productor reactor, sits across the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Site. NOAA and the other natural resource trustees hope to begin reversing the decades of environmental harm at this site. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

No one has completed this kind of assessment at Hanford before, and it will be a challenging and complex task. First, we will pull from existing scientific studies, Hanford site documents, and historical information to create a picture of what harm has been done to the natural resources. Then, we will plan additional studies only where the picture is not already clear.

Once we fill in these missing pieces with data, we will be better prepared to determine the scale and type of restoration needed and begin the appropriate projects. Assessing past, present, and future environmental injuries will not be easy, which is why we need your input on our plan.

Let us know what you think of our proposed approach. You can find out more about our efforts and obtain copies of the Draft Injury Assessment Plan [PDF] at

Submit your comments by January 4, 2013 to:

Mr. Larry Goldstein (
Hanford Natural Resource Trustee Council Chair
Washington State Department of Ecology
Nuclear Waste Program
P.O. Box 47600
Olympia, WA 47600

Mary Baker.

One of the authors, Mary Baker.

In addition, a public meeting will be held on Wednesday, December 12, 2012 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Richland Public Library’s Gallery Room, 955 Northgate Drive.

Learn more about the Hanford Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Mary Baker is an environmental toxicologist and the Northwest-Great Lakes Regional Manager in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

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Salmon Celebrate Less Oily Habitat Six Years after Diesel Spill in Washington’s Cascade Mountains

Joe Inslee and Ian Zelo of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division also contributed to this post.

Returning salmon swim through the new engineered log jam habitat.

Returning salmon, possibly a male and female preparing to spawn, swim through the new engineered log jam habitat along the Greenwater River in Washington. (South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group)

Salmon and other water-loving species in Washington’s White River watershed should be breathing (through their gills) a collective sigh of relief. A mile of their habitat on the Greenwater River in the Cascade Mountains finally has returned to a more natural state. This restoration project is compensating for a diesel spill in nearby Silver Creek when a faulty pump overfilled a fuel tank and despoiled the area on November 3, 2006.

This small 200-gallon operating, or “day,” tank was part of a Puget Sound Energy generator station that supplies backup power to the nearby Crystal Mountain ski area. Normally, the system senses when the day tank is low and fills it by pumping fuel from large underground tanks, automatically shutting down the flow of diesel when the day tank is full.  On that November day, however, a system failure sent an extra 18,000 gallons of fuel gushing through the day tank from three 12,000-gallon underground tanks. The wave of diesel eventually seeped underground into Silver Creek, where it not only affected endangered Chinook salmon and bull trout but at least five miles of the creek and 16 acres of wetlands.

NOAA and our co-trustees evaluated how extensive the environmental injuries were and recovered damages from Puget Sound Energy. The trustees then worked with local partners to carry out restoration activities, which are now complete. The projects emphasized Chinook salmon and their river habitat in the White River watershed (where Silver Creek is located).

Crews place large wood material which will become engineered log jam habitat for salmon.

Crews place large wood material which will become engineered log jam habitat for salmon in the Greenwater River. (South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group)

The Greenwater River floodplain project rehabilitated natural river and floodplain processes in order to expand where and how salmon navigate the White River watershed.  According to the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, “This project removed road fill along the Greenwater River and incorporated large woody material into the channel as engineered log jams.”

Historically, log jams were prevalent in Pacific Northwest rivers [PDF] and would help slow and redirect a river’s straight, fast-moving currents. The benefits for salmon are two-fold: This action chisels deep pools and pockets into the riverbed, which adult and young salmon need to feed and find refuge from predators, and it also overflows some water outside of the main river channel, creating slower-moving tributaries perfect for older salmon as they prepare to spawn. Engineering log jams through restoration projects like this one helps recreate these benefits for salmon [PDF].

Two key partners in this project’s efforts were South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

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Furlongs per Fortnight: Units of Measure and the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill

It’s been almost a year since I started writing for this blog. Shortly after the first entry, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico, taking the lives of eleven men and creating the biggest spill in U.S. history. As the Incident Operations Coordinator for NOAA, there were days when I barely got an hour of sleep. The past year was hectic and exhausting, so as much as I wanted to, keeping up a blog about oil spills was one of many activities that fell through the cracks when up against actually responding to a massive oil spill.

One of my roles in the response to the spill was outreach to the media and Congress on oil spill science. During the last year, I gave hundreds of interviews, dozens of briefings, and was a witness before both House and Senate hearings. Trying to convey the science of spills in a way in which everyone could relate was challenging, especially when trying to communicate the varied units and scales of spills.

And it seems that every area of science and business has their own units of measure. Many of the stories about the nuclear radiation leaks in Japan right now talk about units such as sieverts and becquerels, which my spell checker doesn’t even recognize.

Understanding the Scale of Oil Released into the Gulf of Mexico

I really wanted everyone to understand the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, so I tried to provide some of the following examples that everyone could relate to and visualize themselves.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was located in about 5,000 feet of seawater, and the depth of the well it was drilling into was approximately 18,000 feet below sea level.  The tallest building in the U.S. is the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago, standing at 1,451 feet. Sport divers can’t swim much below 200 feet, and past 1,000 feet down in the ocean, everything has to be done by remotely operated submarine robots.

Many misunderstandings arise because crude oil in the U.S. is typically measured in barrels. Barrels are used in many industries to store bulk liquids, and there is no universal measure. A barrel of beer is 31 gallons. A barrel of wine is 60 gallons.

An oil barrel is 42 U.S. gallons. Elsewhere in the world, oil is commonly measured using cubic meters (m3), also known as metric tons or tonnes. There are approximately 300 gallons per ton of oil, depending on the density of the particular oil. Early reports about a spill incident may use any of these units, so it is important to clarify whether the reports are using gallons, barrels, or tonnes.  We created a desktop conversion program that converts units unique to oil spill response. Try it out:

Right now, our best estimate is that about 4.9 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico over about 87 days. At 42 gallons per barrel, that adds up to 205 million gallons total. To give you some perspective, a typical bathtub is about 40 to60 gallons, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool holds about 660,000 gallons. So imagine 4 million bathtubs or 340 swimming pools filled with oil.

When oil is spilled, it quickly spreads with winds and currents, creating a very thin layer on the sea surface.  Like oil in a puddle after a rainstorm, the thinnest layers of oil can be rainbow-colored or nearly transparent. These thin layers are typically measured in microns, and there are 1,000 microns in 1 millimeter.  Rainbow sheen is typically less than 1 to 5 microns thick.  It is hard to visualize these small units, but standard copy paper is about 100 microns thick. More information on how oil spreads and appears at sea can be found in our “Open Water Oil Identification Job Aid” at [PDF, 4.6 M].

Oil dispersed in water is also hard to visualize. Scientists generally use “parts per million” (ppm) or “parts per billion” (ppb) to describe very low concentrations of contaminants. I tried to use a number of examples to illustrate these low concentrations (a ppm is like one inch in 16 miles, or one second in 11.5 days), but one of the more useful tools was a simple photograph that one of our scientists took. You can see that 1 ppm or 10 ppm still looks like clear water.

Six vials of water showing differences in concentration from 0 parts per million to 10,000 parts per millionEnvironmental sampling and chemical testing can detect some chemicals in extremely small amounts—sometimes creating excessive public concern. We as scientists need to improve how we explain our technical results so that they are meaningful to non-scientists.

And by the way, a furlong per fortnight, as I referenced in the title of this post, is a tongue-in-cheek measure of speed. A furlong is 1/8 of a mile and a fortnight is 14 days, meaning one furlong per fortnight would be about 0.0004 miles per hour, or 1 centimeter per minute.

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When I was young all the gas was so plentiful

This blog post was originally published by Doug Helton on April 2, 2010.

Photograph of a Mobil Service gas station with an "Out of Gas" sign by the pumps, ca. 1974. Photographer is unknown. Washington State Archives/Digital Archives

Photograph of a Mobil Service gas station with an "Out of Gas" sign by the pumps, ca. 1974. Photographer is unknown. Washington State Archives/Digital Archives

I grew up in the ’70s. I remember the 1973-74 fuel embargo and waiting in long gas station lines in my parents’ gas-guzzling 1972 Ford Galaxie (12 mpg). In 1979, my dad parked that car and bought a diesel Volkswagen rabbit (45 mpg).

In high school, “The Logical Song,” a hit single from Supertramp’s 1979 album Breakfast in America, was quickly parodied in “The Topical Song.” The lyrics, “When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,” became “When I was young, all the gas was so plentiful.”

The early ’80s post-apocalyptic movie “The Road Warrior” told the story of societal breakdown as violent gangs roamed the Australian Outback in search of the world’s most precious commodity: gasoline.

With that childhood, I never thought there would be any oil left when I grew up. I am sometimes amazed that 30 years later I work on oil spills.

Although our oil exploration, production, and transportation systems are remarkably safe and efficient, there are still thousands of oil spills every year in the United States. The goal of this blog is to share information on oil spill response and other related environmental challenges.

To get started, some perspective: Oil is still the predominant source of energy in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), we consume over 19.5 million barrels of petroleum every day. Domestic production accounts for only 43% of the demand, so we import 11,114,000 barrels a day.

That is a lot of oil, but how much is a barrel? And do they actually ship oil in barrels? A standard barrel is 42 gallons, but unless you live in a remote location like the Alaskan Bush, you will probably never see petroleum in a barrel. Why they picked a conversion unit as weird as 42 gallons is perhaps the subject of a future blog post.

So we use almost 20 million barrels a day: 840 million gallons of petroleum. And that oil is stored in tanks large and small, and transported in tankers, barges, pipeline, trucks, rail cars, and other containers. And everywhere oil is stored or transported, there is the potential for a spill.

Fortunately, only a minute fraction of that oil is spilled. According to a recent report by the American Petroleum Institute, for every barrel of oil used in the U.S., only 0.00003 barrels are spilled. This works out to about 9.1 million gallons spilled every year in the U.S. Enough to keep spill responders busy.

And what really keeps us busy is the knowledge that despite all of the best efforts and precautions, a major spill can happen any time. Transporting all that oil every day takes hundreds of ships and barges and thousands of miles of pipelines, and accidents happen. A single tanker can easily carry over 50 million gallons. Even a large freighter or cruise ship can carry a couple million gallons of fuel oil. It is not a matter of if, but when another large spill will happen in the U.S.

So look for future blog entries on spill response and restoration and related topics.

–Doug Helton, Incident Operations Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Emergency Response Division