Topics: New oil sheen observed in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal government okays third drilling permit.  BOEMRE director Michael Bromwich and Louisiana senators square off over number of permits pending.  Editorial from the New Orleans Times-Picayune about BP's estimate of the spill.

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Part one of the digest of diaries is here and part two is here.

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We have known since the well was capped that there were still oil and gas bubbles leaking from Macando 252. Several ships, including the Development Driller 3 have been reported in the area of the wellhead in recent days. Now there may be a reason for the attention, but it may not be Macando. There may be another leaky deepwater rig in the Gulf.

Possible oil sheen under investigation in Gulf of Mexico could be large.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that the Coast Guard is investigating.

A helicopter crew and pollution investigators have been dispatched to Main Pass Block 41 in response to two calls to the National Response Center, the federal point of contact for reporting oil and chemical spills, said Paul Barnard, an operations controller for Coast Guard Sector New Orleans.

The first caller, around 11 a.m., described a sheen of about a half-mile long and a half-mile wide, he said.

About two hours later, another caller reported a much larger sheen -- about 100 miles long -- originating in the same area and spreading west to Cocodrie on Terrebonne Bay, Barnard said.

"We haven't been able to verify that, and it would be very unlikely for an individual to be able to observe a 100-mile long sheen," he said, adding inspection teams were en route around 3 p.m. to the site.

Eileen Angelico of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which oversees offshore oil and natural gas production, said late Saturday afternoon that her agency was awaiting Coast Guard confirmation of the nature of the sheen. The bureau had not received word from any operators in the gulf of a spill, she said.

Business Insider reports that the sheen is connected to the deepwater rig Matterhorn Seastar owned by W&T Offshore. W&T Offshore's stock fell like a rock before close of business Friday, which may add some creedence to the possibility that they have a serious problem.

Independent pilots, including John Wathen of the Waterkeeper Alliance, and Bonnie Schumaker with Wings of Care, are currently flying out to investigate the spill. Schumaker reports having seen the sheen on Friday, March 18, and confirms that it is rapidly expanding.

A Louisiana fisherman, who has chosen to remain anonymous at this time, also reports fresh oil coming ashore near South Pass, LA, and that cleanup crews are laying new boom near the beach.

The Coast Guard Cutter Pompano has been sent to the scene to gather a sample, but Petty Officer Casey Ranel said late Saturday it wasn’t clear if the ship would be able to complete its work in the dark.

According to FuelFix, information on Saturday seem to indicate the spill is beginning in a different area, however - the block known as Mississippi Canyon 243. That’s the location of the Matternhorn platform, which serves a tie-in for a number of different fields in the area.

Calls to Matterhorn’s operator, W&T Offshore, were not returned as of Saturday night.

Mississippi Canyon 243, lies 30 miles from the Louisiana coastline. The Matterhorn field, at a depth of 2,789 feet (850 meters) of water, was discovered in 1999, leased and permitted in July 2001, and came into production in November 2003. It is located 30 miles SE of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

According to W&T, the field has produced an average rate of 5,200 barrels of oil per day, and has production capacities of 35,000 barrels of oil per day.

But before we set our hair on fire and run around screaming and shouting, check this story from UPI in January, that never made it to anyone's headlines, apparently... A search for "oil sheen in Gulf" on the Times-Picayune website returns 1160 hits going back several years.

(January 19, 2011) Oil sheen seen in Gulf of Mexico. U.S. energy company Apache Corp. said it sent an underwater robot to an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico to find the source of a "disturbance."

Apache said it started work to plug a well at its East Cameron block oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico during the weekend after workers spotted bubbling on the surface of the water near the platform. An oil sheen was observed Monday, the company said.

The company said it dispatched a remotely operated vehicle to the area to identify what it described as a "water disturbance." Apache added that, as of Tuesday, no sheen or other evidence of hydrocarbons were visible.

Before anyone flames me for not screaming enough, my track record with Gulf Watchers is obvious. I am under no circumstances a shill for big oil (I left the field of geology because I could not work with the "drill, baby, drill" attitude) and am a fierce advocate of getting the entire planet off fossil fuels as soon as possible. I want more information on this "spill". Now. I want the TRUTH. NOW. But whatever you would like to believe, we are now hyperaware to any trace of oil where it should not be. Having said that, although oil on the surface (and under the surface) of the ocean is not a good thing, ever, small spills will occur with drilling, and can do major environmental damage. Small ones can usually be dealt with through skimming and natural processes. Large ones, however, should never happen. This particular incident may be eventually prove to be really bad, or it may be a minor problem that should be corrected immediately - and another example of lax, greed-driven drilling.  

Update...The sheen/spill could be from dredging.If the dredged material contained settled hydrocarbons, which is most likely, that could account for the oil-like sheen.

Update x2...this may be two separate incidents...oil on beach and booming is one, the "sheen/slick" a second, unrelated incident. From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Oil was released into the Gulf of Mexico south of Grand Isle for four to six hours Saturday, the apparent source of oil that washed ashore on Louisiana beaches Sunday, a Jefferson Parish Council member said.

The source of the leak has been secured, Councilman Chris Roberts said in an email.

On Saturday, the Coast Guard received varying reports detailing a sheen between three and 100 miles long, starting about six miles off the coast of Grand Isle. However, the Guard apparently is investigating that as a separate incident.

The Coast Guard had investigated the sheen by sending out a cutter to collect samples, Coast Guard spokeswoman Casey Ranel said.

The Coast Guard said the samples contained "only trace amounts of petroleum hydrocarbons, oil and grease."

The Coast Guard said "the dark substance (in the Gulf) is believed to be caused by a tremendous amount of sediment being carried down the Mississippi River due to high water, possibly further agitated by dredging operations."

A third deepwater drilling permit has been granted.....The Department of the Interior on Friday granted a new deepwater permit to ATP Oil & Gas Corporation. The permit is to drill a new well in Mississippi Canyon Block 941, in 4,000 feet of water located 90 miles south of Venice, Louisiana. For the permit to be granted, ATP had to adhere to the new governmental restrictions for containment of a possible blowout, contracting with Helix Well Containment Group to use the (as yet unproven) capping stack to contain oil in the event of an accident.

"This permit approval demonstrates that deepwater drilling can and will continue in the Gulf of Mexico, provided that operators have successfully demonstrated their ability to operate safely," said Michael Bromwich, the U.S. regulator of offshore drilling.

However, many U.S. lawmakers have accused the Interior Department of moving too slowly in approving drilling permits for the Gulf of Mexico since a ban on deepwater drilling was lifted in October.

Initial drilling at the site took place in August 2008. Drilling was suspended in July 2009 and a rig was at the site in April 2010 to prepare for installing a production facility. Operations were the suspended following the BP oil spill.

Bromwich and Louisiana senator square off in numbers fight.

Louisiana Senator David Vitter (R-Pampers) says "someone is misleading the public" in regard to issuing drilling permits, and exactly how many there are.

On Wednesday, Vitter accused the Obama administration of spreading “false” and “misleading” information about the backlog of offshore drilling proposals that are waiting to be reviewed by regulators at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Friday, bureau director Michael Bromwich fired back and said Vitter’s claims — made in a press release and letter to administration officials — were “extraordinarily misleading.”

Bromwich and Vitter, R-La., are squaring off over a statistic embedded in a legal filing by the administration two weeks ago, which said that 270 shallow water and 52 deep-water well permit applications were pending before the agency.

That raised red flags for industry advocates, who have accused the administration of obscuring the true number of drilling applications that have been filed with the ocean energy bureau, in part because some incomplete proposals are passed between operators and regulators several times before they are formally deemed “pending.”

Vitter questioned why the numbers were “so completely inconsistent” with recent testimony from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that only seven deep-water permit applications were pending and the administration has received just 47 shallow-water proposals over the past nine months.

“It is a mathematical impossibility for your representations to be accurate, as well as the filings of the Department of Justice to be accurate,” Vitter said. “It is important for the information you provide to elected officials and the public to meet basic legal and ethical guidelines required of federal agency officials. Disseminating false or misleading information impedes the credibility of BOEMRE.”

Okay...pot, meet kettle...

Saturday's editorial from the New Orleans Times-Picayune on BP's spill estimates.

Investigators in BP's criminal probe are reportedly examining what company officials knew about the Macondo well's flow rate in the early days of last year's spill -- and that's a warranted angle for the probe. After the April 20 blowout, the company initially said only 1,000 barrels a day were spilling into the ocean and later it revised its estimate to 5,000 barrels daily. But congressional investigators uncovered documents showing BP knew then that as much as 14,000 barrels could have been spilling every day. Government scientists eventually pegged the actual flow at 62,000 barrels a day.

Federal investigators have shown up at the homes of several BP executives in recent weeks to question them about the flow rate and how it may have differed from what the company told government officials and the public, according to sources. Giving false statements to a federal agency is a felony.

Two sources familiar with the Department of Justice probe said the investigation also is examining whether BP executives used their internal knowledge of the spill for illegal insider trading.

At the same time, the Justice Department has formed a new task force in the investigation headed by the Criminal Division, not the Environmental Division. It remains to be seen whether that means the department is preparing what could be the biggest environmental criminal case in the nation's history.

BP and its contractors face as much as $30 billion in criminal fines and an additional $21 billion in potential civil penalties for the spill. Many observers expect the fines to be negotiated between the firm and the government and to be set at lower amounts, in great part because BP already has paid billions of dollars for cleanup and to settle damage claims.

But Deputy Attorney General James Cole said that, "If criminal conduct did occur, there will be a harsh price to pay."

It's important that those responsible for the disaster pay the full cost of repairing the damage. It's also important that any firm or individual who broke the law is brought to justice.

Gulf residents, who suffered the consequences of the spill, deserve no less.

And because there is so rarely any good news, here's some from the Independent/UK...

Tidal stream development approved.

The world's largest tidal stream energy development will be built off the west coast of Scotland.

ScottishPower Renewables' £40 million tidal array will harness the power of the Sound of Islay and generate enough electricity for more than 5,000 homes, more than double the number of homes on Islay.

The 10 megawatt (MW) facility will further develop emerging tidal energy technology, and provide economic and community benefits to Islay and Jura.

The Scottish Government said it will cement Scotland's position as a global leader in marine energy.

Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth John Swinney, who determined the application as it is in Energy Minister Jim Mather's Argyll & Bute constituency, said: "With around a quarter of Europe's potential tidal energy resource and a tenth of the wave capacity, Scotland's seas have unrivalled potential to generate green energy, create new, low carbon jobs, and bring billions of pounds of investment to Scotland.

"This development - the largest tidal array in the world - does just that and will be a milestone in the global development of tidal energy."

Mr Swinney said the Scottish Power Renewables array will work in harmony with the environment and use the power of the tides in the Sound of Islay to generate enough green energy to power double the number of homes on Islay.

He added: "There is simply nothing like it consented anywhere else in the world.

Tidal energy is also being tested in the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia - tidal range in Fundy can be 50 feet or more. The state of Maine also has areas that could be utilized for tidal power generation.

PLEASE visit Pam LaPier's diary to find out how you can help the Gulf now and in the future. We don't have to be idle! And thanks to Crashing Vor and Pam LaPier for working on this!

Previous Gulf Watcher diaries:

3-18-11 04:59 PM Gulf Watchers Block Party: Ballads BlackSheep1
3-18-11 08:12 AM Gulf Watchers Friday - We Are Royally Screwed - BP Catastrophe AUV #488 Lorinda Pike
3-16-11 06:00 AM Gulf Watchers Wed. - Air Pollution Measuring Advance Comes Out of Spill - BP Catastrophe AUV #487 peraspera
3-13-11 11:53 AM Gulf Watchers Sunday - Another Permit Issued - BP Catastrophe AUV #486 Lorinda Pike
3-11-11 07:14 PM Gulf Watchers Block Party - Talkin Bout My Generation ursoklevar
3-11-11 08:29 AM Gulf Watchers Friday - Smoke, Mirrors and the Noise Machine - BP Catastrophe AUV #485 Lorinda Pike
The last Mothership has links to reference material.

Previous motherships and ROV's from this extensive live blog effort may be found here.

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