Perhaps it’s a disservice to continue calling the oil pouring into the Gulf a spill. “Spill” makes it hard to conceptualize the estimated 60,000 barrels of oil per day blasting up from a well more than 5,000 feet below sea level. It also makes it difficult to picture how, as BP estimates, as much as 40 percent of the material “spilling” is methane gas. That methane has been largely overshadowed by the horror of oil-soaked pelicans and tar balls washing ashore, but now a survey, completed on Monday, has measured how the methane has spread.
What’s the problem with methane? The microbes that feed off it. It can create “methane seep ecosystems”–shallow food chains that eat crude oil and dissolved methane and in the process consume all available oxygen, leaving nothing for other marine life forms. Bacteria eat the methane and “ice worms” (so-called because they live around ice-like methane hydrate) eat bacteria, but nothing else eats these worms. This creates a “dead zone.”
So in short [an abundance of creatures that use] methane for food and oxygen to “breathe” will create areas where only bacteria and a few other non-life sustaining organisms can live. All others die. [San Francisco Chronicle]
Brown pelicans smothered by BP’s oil spill may be the symbols of sadness for the disaster in the Gulf, but they are, of course, far from the only animals affected. Marine scientists are watching other species for signs of danger.
Late last week, scientists spotted the first dead whale seen in the Gulf since the leak began gushing oil in April. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found a 25-foot-long sperm whale washed up, and now it is testing the sea creature for cause of death.
“While it is impossible to confirm whether exposure to oil was the cause of death, NOAA is reviewing whether factors such as ship strikes and entanglement can be eliminated,” the agency said. Samples collected from this carcass will be stored until the Pisces returns to port on July 2, or possibly if another boat is sent to meet the Pisces. Full analysis of the samples will take several weeks [New Orleans Times-Picayune].
So far, it at least appears that manatees have been spared toxic exposure to the ever-growing oil spill. However, a science team hunkered down at Dauphin Island in Alabama—in the path of the oil—say their luck may not hold.
Until recently, biologists believed that manatees rarely ventured west of peninsular Florida, where, so far, no oil has appeared. But in 2007, Ruth Carmichael, who leads the Dauphin Island team, began documenting a relatively large summer migration of manatees to Mobile Bay, Ala. — leading them directly into and through the path of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak. From a couple of dozen to as many as 100 come to Mobile Bay for the summer, out of a total North American population of 5,000, she said [The New York Times].
Here’s what’s new in the Gulf of Mexico:
1. Saw stuck.
When we left the BP oil spill yesterday, the “top kill” had failed and the “top cap” plan—cutting the pipe at a strategic location and then placing a containment dome on top—was commencing. But like every other BP attempt to stop the leak, the dome effort hit a snag.
The attempt bogged down overnight as a special diamond-wire saw snagged in the pipe. The work has stalled as BP tries two old logger tricks: changing the angle of the pipe to let the saw get through and, if that doesn’t work, bringing the saw to the surface to replace the blade [Christian Science Monitor].
What’s more, even if the saw gets free and BP successfully cuts the riser, the already-gushing flow of oil will increase by at least 20 percent between the time engineers finish the cut and the time they install the cap. Whether BP can install the cap, or instead a looser-fitting shell that would capture less of the oil, depends on how smoothly the company makes the final cut. Getting the saw stuck isn’t a good sign.
2. Criminal investigation.
The word is official now: Attorney General Eric Holder says the United States government will be opening a criminal investigation into the spill.
At this point the question “now what?” has reached a sort of repetitive absurdity in the Gulf of Mexico. With BP having failed to stop its oil leak with robots and failed with containment domes and failed with the “top kill” maneuver, the company has decided it’s going to try the dome approach again.
On Monday, engineers positioned submarine robots that will try to shear off a collapsed 21-inch riser pipe with a razorlike wire studded with bits of industrial diamonds. If that is achieved, officials will need at least a couple of days to position a domelike cap over the blowout preventer [The New York Times].
The cap is called the lower marine riser package (LMRP), and—stop me if you’ve heard this one—it’s never been tested at the depth of 5,000 feet, so BP has no idea whether it will work. The previous version of the containment dome had the same goal: establishing a seal on the seal and piping the oil up to a tanker on the surface. But because of buildup on the dome, that first attempt in early May was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the disastrous numbers just get worse. The oil spill is now worse than the Exxon Valdez and increasing in size by the day. Yesterday wind patterns from the south threatened to carry more oil toward Mississippi and Alabama. The fishing ban has been extended to nearly 62,000 square miles, or about a quarter of the Gulf.
After nearly forty days of wandering in the wilderness of failure and frustration, is this the time that BP finally closes off its oil leak?
There’s a glimmer of optimism in the Gulf of Mexico right now, as the “top kill” appears to have stopped the flow of oil. But with everything that’s happened so far, people are watching nervously and holding off on any celebration until we know the leak is sealed at last.
“They’ve been able to stabilize the wellhead, they’re pumping mud down it. They’ve stopped the hydrocarbons from coming up,” said Coast Guard chief Thad Allen, who is coordinating the US government’s battle against the oil spill. He told local radio WWL First News that BP “had some success overnight” but cautioned the British energy giant was “in a period of kind of wait and see right now where they see how the well stabilizes” [Discovery News].
The likelihood of long-term success grows with the passing hours, though, for the sake of caution, it may be tomorrow before BP declares victory on this. It took a lot of pumping heavy mud just to get to this point:
This week BP will try one more time to stop its massive leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The “top kill” plan that was supposed to go into action on Sunday will now commence on Wednesday, the company says.
The process will involve pumping heavy fluids down two three-inch lines placed inside the wellhead. If successful, the fluids will temporarily stop the oil rush, which would then allow operators to seal the opening with cement. The wellhead, officials say, will never be used again for oil drilling [Christian Science Monitor].
Just like the containment dome, though, a top kill has never been attempted on a leak gushing so far below the surface of the water—5,000 feet. But with BP’s other attempts ending in failure, this looks like the best shot the company has to stop the flow in a short term.
As BP prepares this operation, the simmering anger at the company has seeped up to the higher levels of the U.S. government. Rear Admiral Mary Landry, who has been coordinating the Coast Guard’s response with BP, finally started to sound annoyed with the company’s actions—or lack thereof—as 65 miles of American shorelines have now been hit by oil, coating pelicans in Louisiana that were just removed from the endangered species list six months ago.
Landry also criticized BP for allowing some equipment that could aid in efforts to block or clean up the spreading oil slick to sit unused, even as oil is washing up onto the Gulf Coast. “There is really no excuse for not having constant activity,” Landry said [New Orleans Times-Picayune].
By now, more than 650,000 gallons of chemical dispersant have gone into the Gulf of Mexico to try to break up the oil. But after giving BP the go-ahead to use the chemical, and to inject it undersea, the Environmental Protection Agency changed course yesterday and demanded that BP switch to a less toxic dispersant. From the EPA statement:
While the dispersant BP has been using is on the Agency’s approved list, BP is using this dispersant in unprecedented volumes and, last week, began using it underwater at the source of the leak – a procedure that has never been tried before. Because of its use in unprecedented volumes and because much is unknown about the underwater use of dispersants, EPA wants to ensure BP is using the least toxic product authorized for use.
EPA gave BP until today to pick an alternative, and then another 72 hours after that to begin using the alternative in the Gulf. A couple weeks ago we covered the concern that Corexit—the dispersant BP has been using all along—could have toxic side effects, and that a less toxic (and possibly more effective) alternative could be available. With the EPA order, BP is finally moving in that direction.
U.S. Polychemical of Spring Valley, N.Y., which makes a dispersant called Dispersit SPC 1000, said Thursday morning that it had received an order from BP and would increase its production to 20,000 gallons a day in the next few days, and eventually to as much as 60,000 gallons a day [The New York Times].
Will the Florida Keys catch a break with the loop current? Most observers are now in agreement that one of the biggest ecological worries about the BP oil spill—that it could reach the Gulf of Mexico’s loop current that flows to the Keys—has begun to occur. However, The New York Times reports today via Greenwire that eddies around the edge of the current are keeping much of the oil out of it.
Clear predictions are hard to come by because the oil continues to defy expectations about which direction it will go, and so does the loop current.
The loop moves based on shifting winds and other environmental factors, so even though oil is leaking continuously it may be in the current one day, and out the next. The slick itself has defied scientists’ efforts to track it and predict its path. Instead, it has repeatedly advanced and retreated, an ominous, shape-shifting mass in the Gulf, with vast underwater lobes extending outward [AP].
And, oceanographers like Mitch Roffer say, eddies forming near the current could disrupt it and change the oil’s course.
Satellite shots this morning showed that an eddy farther south along the Florida coast is expanding in size and strength. That cyclone appears likely to destabilize or even sever the Loop Current, greatly reducing the oil threat to the Florida Keys and beyond, he said. “If it forms, it’s going to pull a lot of the oil away from Florida,” Roffer said. There are no guarantees, he added, “but it looks very likely that this is forming” [The New York Times].
As the oil has continued to leak into the Gulf of Mexico, bad news about the attempts to stop the flow has continued to leak out, too. But this weekend, finally, brought a ray of good news: BP succeeded in installing a mile-long pipe that will siphon some of the oil up to a tanker on the shore, slowing down the rate of oil flow into the water.
The current strategy involves snaking a tube snugly into the leaking pipe. The tube is bent at one end like a hook and equipped with thick rubber fins intended to keep oil from leaking out around the edges [Wall Street Journal].
BP officials say the pipe is working well so far, but they don’t yet what percentage of the oil they’ll be able to capture with this method. And the siphoning pipe is a temporary solution. As the oil company presses on with the months-long process to drill a relief well to relieve the pressure on the leaking area, its engineers are also hunkered down designing a way to deliver the “junk shot” made of tires and golf balls that potentially could seal of the leak.
Videos of the oil leak 5,000 feet down in the Gulf of Mexico are coming out, and according to some scientists, the news is even worse than we thought.
If you remember back a few weeks to the outset of the BP oil spill, the official estimate was that 1,000 barrels of oil (42,000 gallons) was leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. While that’s nothing to sneeze at, the total wasn’t catastrophic compared to historic spills like the Exxon Valdez. Then, more than a week after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did their own quick calculation and quintupled the estimate to 5,000 barrels per day.
BP later acknowledged to Congress that the worst case, if the leak accelerated, would be 60,000 barrels a day, a flow rate that would dump a plume the size of the Exxon Valdez spill into the gulf every four days. BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, has estimated that the reservoir tapped by the out-of-control well holds at least 50 million barrels of oil [The New York Times].
Now, according to an independent analysis done by Purdue’s Steve Werely with video footage of the leak, that worst-case figure by BP is close to what’s actually happening, and the true total might be even higher. Werely estimates the leak at 70,000 barrels per day, and with a 20% uncertainty in the numbers, that gives a range of 56,000 to 84,000.
Werely told The Guardian he based his estimate on techniques which track the speed of objects travelling in the flow stream.”You can see in the video lots of swirls and vortices pumping out of the end of the pipe, and I used a computer code to track those swirls and come up with the speed at which the oils is shooting out of the pipe,” he said. “From there it is a very simple calculation to figure out what is the volume flow” [The Guardian].