As BP’s oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico week after week last summer, we got accustomed to wildly different estimates for how quickly the oil was leaking and how much entered the gulf. Now, 10 months after the mess began, government and independent scientists have wildly different estimates for how much of the oil remains.
Oceanographer Samantha Joye, speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington this weekend, revealed the findings of her trips to the Gulf to study the seafloor. In December she dove to areas around the site of BP’s well blowout, finding—and photographing—layers of gunky hydrocarbons. The oil was up to inches thick in places.
“Magic microbes consumed maybe 10 percent of the total discharge, the rest of it we don’t know,” Joye said, later adding: “there’s a lot of it out there.” [AP]
To explain how so much oil got down to the seafloor, Joye’s team did an experiment when they got back to the lab. Joye put a dab of oil from the BP well into a vial of water taken from nearby in the Gulf, then watched.
After just one day, naturally occurring microbes in the water began growing on the oil. After a week, the cells formed blobs, held together by spit, that were so heavy they began sinking to the bottom of a jar. Two weeks later, large streamers of microbial slime and cells were evident. Brown dots visible inside the mix were emulsified oil. “This is the mechanism that we propose deposited oil to the [Gulf’s] bottom,” Joye said. [Science News]
The oil stopped spilling from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead months ago, but the Gulf of Mexico’s environmental saga continues. Researchers have investigated the chemicals used to disperse the oil flow in the first place, and found that these “dispersants” didn’t disperse. The effects of this massive chemistry experiment, however, are still unknown.
“The dispersants got stuck in deep water layers around 3,000 feet [915 meters] and below,” said study leader David Valentine, a microbial geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara…. “We were seeing it three months after the well had been capped. We found that all of that dispersant added at depth stayed in the deepwater plumes. Not only did it stay, but it didn’t get rapidly biodegraded as many people had predicted.” [National Geographic]
In total, the response team pumped over 800,000 gallons of dispersants into the oil flow; dispersants break down oil into smaller droplets that can degrade more quickly. But the impact of the dispersants themselves has been up for debate. For the new study, scientists tracked the dispersants by following one of its ingredients: dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS).
Oil wasn’t the only thing seeping into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The explosion of BP’s oil rig also triggered a leak a methane.
With the well unsealed, substantial amounts of the gas were released into the gulf. This plume of dissolved methane should have lurked in the water for years, hanging around like a massive planetary fart. But by August, it had disappeared. On three separate trips through the gulf, John Kessler from Texas A&M University couldn’t find any traces of the gas above background levels. He thinks he knows why – the methane was eaten by bacteria.
The gas pouring out of the broken well spurred the growth of bacteria called methanotrophs, which can break down methane as their only source of energy. They made short work of the gas. By the time that Kessler reached the gulf, just four months after the initial blowout, he found plenty of bacteria and precious little methane.
Check out the rest of Ed’s post on this discovery at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
As for BP itself: The petroleum giant now finds itself in the legal arena, but the company may avoid a worst-case scenario there. A presidential commission established to investigate the affair has found the brunt of liability to be BP’s, but also found the root cause of the disaster to be widespread, systematic mismanagement by everyone, and not rogue behavior by any one player. That is, BP will skate without being charged with “gross negligence” because everybody else made mistakes, too.
Commission co-chair William K Reilly said: “So a key question posed from the outset by this tragedy is, do we have a single company, BP, that blundered with fatal consequences, or a more pervasive problem of a complacent industry? Given the documented failings of both Transocean and Halliburton, both of which serve the offshore industry in virtually every ocean, I reluctantly conclude we have a system-wide problem.” [The Guardian]
80beats: Massive Coral Die-Off Found Just 7 Miles from BP Oil Spill Site
80beats: BP’s Oil Well of Doom Is Declared Officially, Permanently Dead
80beats: BP Report on Gulf Disaster Spreads the Blame Around
80beats: Scientists Find 22-Mile-Long Oily Plume Drifting in the Gulf of Mexico
80beats: Gulf Coast Turtle News: No More Fiery Death; Relocating 70,000 Eggs
Image: U.S. Coast Guard
New sea creatures, humongous stars, and cockroach antibiotics: Those are just a few reader favorites from this year in science. As 2010 comes to a close, we bring you a dozen of the most popular 80beats posts of the year.
For more great stories from the year in science, check out DISCOVER’s Top 100 Stories of the Year.
The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico brought us those gut-wrenching pictures of pelicans covered in oil, but up to now there have been mercifully few reports of the disaster causing specific large-scale damage to the Gulf environment. That may be beginning to change: This week oceanographers report a vast swath of coral about seven miles southwest of the Deepwater Horizon site that are coated in brownish-black gunk and dying off. The team says the evidence points to the oil spill as the culprit.
The scientists sailed aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research boat Ronald H. Brown, and used remotely operated submersibles to survey the seafloor and find this devastation.
“The coral were either dead or dying, and in some cases they were simply exposed skeletons,” said team member Timothy Shank of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “I’ve never seen that before. And when we tried to take samples of the coral, this black—I don’t know how to describe it—black, fluffylike substance fell off of them.” [National Geographic]
According to the calendar, summer officially ends this week. But unofficially, it ended over the weekend: BP’s leaking oil well, which cast a gooey black malaise over the last five months, is finally dead.
Crews pumped in cement Friday to plug the well nearly 2.5 miles below the sea floor. The mixture had hardened by Saturday, and a pressure test completed early yesterday confirmed that the plug would hold. [Boston Globe]
Now it time for cleanup, lawsuits, and a whole lot of unanswered questions, including:
Will we drill again?
Five months later, BP might finally stop up its leaking well for good this week. As of yesterday, drilling crews had about 50 feet of rock left to drill through to complete their “bottom kill” operation.
Federal officials have said it should take about four days to drill the final stretch of the relief well so that it intersects with the original well. From there, it will probably take a few days to pump in mud and cement and perform tests to determine that the well is fully killed. [Los Angeles Times]
Meanwhile, we continue to hear conflicting reports regarding the whereabouts of the leaked oil, and how much of it persists in the Gulf environment. Last week we heard good news from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which said that not only were microbes consuming much of the oil, but they also weren’t depleting the Gulf of Mexico’s oxygen to dangerously low level, which had been feared.
Back in May, when executives from BP, Halliburton, and Transocean were hauled in front of Congress to account for the Gulf of Mexico disaster, it was a merry-go-round of blame. With BP publishing online its own internal investigation into the accident this week, it’s more of the same.
BP’s report is far from the definitive ruling on the blowout’s causes, but it may provide some hint of the company’s legal strategy — spreading the blame among itself, rig owner Transocean, and cement contractor Halliburton — as it faces hundreds of lawsuits and possible criminal charges over the spill. Government investigators and congressional panels are looking into the cause as well. [AP]
BP cites eight different places where the accident of April 20 aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig could have been prevented, but points the finger mostly away from itself. One of those problems, it says, was with the workers on the rig.
The BP oil spill isn’t over. But, as CNN says, we could be at the beginning of the end.
The first part of BP’s “static kill,” in which it used mud to try to plug the leak, appears to have worked well and stemmed the flow of oil. Last night National Incident Commander Thad Allen gave the OK for the second part: pumping concrete. That could begin today.
BP’s “static kill” operation finished ahead of schedule. It took eight hours to fill the 13,000-foot well pipe with heavy drill mud, holding back the oil with its weight. … Now, the column of mud ensures that oil will never be released from the well again, officials say. A permanent cement plug will be put in place later this month [ABC News].
This business of pumping mud probably sounds familiar. That’s because it’s basically the same thing BP tried to do many weeks ago with its “top kill” maneuver. This time, though, the mud seems to be working, probably because the temporary cap BP put on the leak in July made it easier to smother the oil flow.
If three months of waiting for BP to fix its oil leak have taught us anything, it’s not to get too optimistic about potential fixes. On Thursday, BP installed a cap that appeared to cut off the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, but yesterday the federal government officials overseeing the leak response said (pdf) that there appear to be hydrocarbons leaking from the seafloor near the well, and possibly methane detected above the well.
The upshot is that BP has until tomorrow (Tuesday) to investigate this possible leak. If it is there, the government could force BP to reopen the cap and resume pumping oil up to tankers on the surface.
The discovery of a seep and the unspecified anomalies suggest that the well could be damaged and that it may have to be reopened soon to avoid making the situation worse [The New York Times].