Gulf Oil Back in the Spotlight

by Bill Chameides | October 13th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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n July when I visited the Gulf of Mexico on a fact-finding mission, I found lots of oil staining the marshes in Barataria Bay. Now reports say much of that is gone. When I return to the gulf at the end of the month I’ll have a new report.

The oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico last summer has resurfaced by bottoming out.

With the capping of the Macondo oil well in July, the oil that spewed into the gulf from the Deepwater Horizon disaster pretty quickly faded from view, and, almost as rapidly, news coverage dried up. But now there’s a resurgence of Deepwater Horizon news.

What the Lifting of the Drilling Moratorium Means Depends on Who Is Talking

The big Gulf of Mexico story that broke yesterday was the Obama administration’s lifting of the moratorium on deepwater drilling seven weeks ahead of schedule. According to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the new regulations being put in place represent a “cautious approach” and will make another accident like the Deepwater Horizon’s highly unlikely and, given our dependence on oil and the importance of the gulf region for our domestic production, the time has come to get at it again.

The lifting of the ban has received mixed reviews. According to government officials, new permits for deepwater drilling should begin by the end of the year. Not good enough from the point of view of the oil industry, which claims the new regulations are too cumbersome and too expensive and fears a “de facto moratorium” resulting from the new regulatory burdens. Ill-advised, say environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, which avers that lifting the ban is premature and unnecessarily risky, especially when up to 50 percent of the oil is still in the water.

There is also a big disagreement over the economic effects of the moratorium, some suggesting large economic losses, others arguing not so much (see coverage of government report on the situation here and here [pdf]).

I don’t know which side is correct, but I found this interesting: last night on NPR, an industry official said that the oil companies are now “chomping at the bit” to get deepwater drilling up and running in the gulf again. That statement does not quite square with industry warnings that with the permitting of new deepwater drilling at a standstill because of the moratorium, all the gulf oil rigs would leave for other regions, prompting a mass exodus of skilled workers. Gulf oil exploration and extraction, it was predicted, would be crippled for years. Could it be that those earlier predictions of a crippled industry were a bit of an exaggeration?

With the politicians and economists duking it out over the moratorium’s myriad ramifications, scientists have been busy trying to figure out what all that oil that’s doused the gulf will ultimately do to the area’s ecosystems. The early results of those studies have yet to paint a clear picture.

Conflicting Findings in the Early Peer-Reviewed Literature

Last week three papers appearing in the journal Science reported on scientific studies of the oil spilled into the gulf and its fate.

One paper, by Richard Camilli of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and colleagues, notes the persistence of a large deepwater plume in late June located south-southwest of the failed well that showed little evidence of biodegradation.

Another, by Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and colleagues, found that a previously unknown species of cold-water, hydrocarbon-eating bacteria was degrading the deepwater plume at rates faster than anticipated and without substantial oxygen drawdown. (For more, see my post on the topic.)

A third, by David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues, examined the fate of natural gas released from the well. Their preliminary survey from mid-June found that the bulk of microbial degradation in the deepwater plume was not of oil but of natural gas.

So the combined early picture in the peer-reviewed literature is fuzzy. We have one paper implying that the oil at the bottom of the gulf will be gone in short order and another saying there’s loads of the stuff and it does not appear to be going away.

Who’s Right? Too Early to Say, but …

Last month new data surfaced, so to speak. Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia reportedly found “miles of [oil] sitting at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.” She reports that “the oil has not disappeared but is on the sea floor in a layer of scum. … We’re finding it everywhere that we’ve looked.”

Why is all that oil sitting on the sea floor? One major reason no doubt was all that dispersant that BP used (despite claims to the contrary). The point of using dispersants at depth was to break up the oil before it reached the surface. So it should not be a surprise to now find oil dropping out of the water column and accumulating on the ocean bottom.

Of course one of the advantages for BP in using all that dispersant is that it got the oil out of view, which led the news media to pack up and drop the story, which perhaps led many outside the area to assume that the disaster wasn’t such a disaster after all.

When I was down in the gulf in July, the president of Plaquemines Parish, Billy Nungesser, told me that his biggest concern was that BP “sticks around.”

“The big thing right now,” he told me, “is to make sure that they’re here, as they continue to say, to the end. And we don’t know when that end’s going to be.”

Did BP use all that dispersant to prevent ecological damage or to simply keep the damage out of sight so they could get out of Dodge? I have not seen enough evidence to support the latter. But to find out, you may have to scratch beneath the surface.

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