No, methane from the BP oil leak won't kill us all

By Phil Plait | July 12, 2010 8:00 pm

io9_logoWhile I was at TAM 8 a breathless story came out claiming that methane erupting from the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico was going to cause a catastrophic global extinction event. I knew the story smelled bad right away* but was a bit busy at the meeting, so I couldn’t attack it.

Happily, my pal Annalee Newitz at io9 did. She talked to actual experts and found out there simply isn’t enough methane leaking from the oil plume to do much except to the local environment. In my humble opinion, this ecological disaster sucks enough without adding hysteria to it.

Tip o’ the top hat to Rob Sheridan and aeontriad.



* Yes, I made a fart joke (it’s not the first time). And yes, I know methane is odorless.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Cool stuff, Debunking
MORE ABOUT: Annalee Newitz, BP, io9, oil leak

Comments (64)

  1. Grand Lunar

    Isn’t there several megatons of methene being pumped into our atmosphere naturally anyway?

    Ah, but facts don’t get in the way of fear mongerers.

    Ironically Phil, we need more sucking going on to help with this disaster.
    Got some red matter handy?

  2. OT, but you might enjoy the latest from xkcd: http://xkcd.com/765/

  3. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    RE: Footnote, above…

    Confucius say: Man who fart in church must sit in his own pew.

    P.S. Q: How can you tell if a woman is wearing tan tights (pantyhose)?

    A: If she farts, her ankles swell.

  4. Are there really a lot of people falling for that?

  5. Off Topic: Vote to get Dr. Plait on Mythbusters with his close personal friend™!

    http://influencer.discovery.com/tasks/4c3b37ec2828162f1c00001d/

    :D

    And yes Inti (#3) people fall for this sort of excrement all the time…

  6. Bruce

    Hey Phil, how about blogging about NASA chief Charles Bolden. Apparently NASA’s priorities no longer include space exploration. Now their foremost task is to make muslims feel good about their historical accomplishments.

    http://www.floridatoday.com/article/20100707/NEWS02/7070337/NASA+chief+Bolden+s+Muslim+remark+to+Al-Jazeera+causes+stir

  7. Allen

    I heard about this a few hours ago. I’m not really surprised something like this popped up, it usually happens after every major disaster.

  8. Rider

    “In my humble opinion, this ecological disaster sucks enough without adding hysteria to it.”

    This is kind of like what I keep telling people who keep trying to call this “the worst environmental disaster in history.”

    First how do you quantify something like that, second do you really need to compare environmental disasters.

  9. This is completely unrelated, but after reading Phil’s book Death from the Skies: These are the ways the world will end I came up with a T-shirt design: a ladies’ tee with “these are the ways the world will end” printed on the front! Good? Bad? Let me know.

  10. John Paradox

    This reminds me, Snopes had another debunking of the “Mars Spectacular” again on June 30th.

    I suppose this will show up there soon, hopefully.

    J/P=?

  11. Eric

    The article I read didn’t say the methane from the oil leak itself will be the problem. The problem is that the escaping oil is creating a huge void under the seabed. We have no real idea if there are any threatening pockets of methane deeper down that will no longer be contained beneath the void.
    Yes, the article still falls under ‘fear mongering’ but I doubt any of the ‘experts’ know with 100% certainty what lies below the oil pocket. And there is historical evidence (what’s a few hundred million years between friends?) of massive methane bubbles.

    Still, even if it’s all true there’s no sense in getting hysterical about it anyway.

  12. DLC

    But, Mars’ close approach will knock Nibiru out of orbit and cause it to slam into earth!
    really! and it’ll cause all that methane to explode all in one boom, blowing half the planet to smithereens ! Really, I read it on the internet, it must be true!

  13. serenity

    “I knew the story smelled bad right away*”

    Ahh! This get on my nerves. Methane is ODORLESS!

  14. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    @serenity,

    Like, er… did you not see Phil’s footnote?

  15. Phil, I thought the same thing straight away, however the story I read was frightening enough to even make me feel a bit nervous. Then I reasoned it away. Glad to hear you are skeptical. But I already knew that didn’t I? :)

  16. serenity

    @#12:
    Um, oops… No.
    I read “* Tip o’ the top hat to Rob Sheridan and aeontriad.” (mistakenly, obviously) and then went on to comment so fast that I didn’t check for typos. ;)

  17. ggremlin

    To misquote a little Shakespeare for the occasion:

    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
    Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
    The world farts and we are all in rubble.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    That must be the stupidest thing I’ve read in a few years!

    The Ryskin model is on the one hand AFAIU (paywall) unsubstantiated; neither evidence for on the applicable time scale stagnant sea water I believe, nor evidence for it containing dissolved gases to such extents, nor evidence for said gases being responsible for mass extinctions.

    And on the other hand it isn’t as if oil and gas leaks (natural or man made), volcano eruptions or plain vanilla plate tectonics haven’t been stirring deep waters before!

    #9:

    The article I read didn’t say the methane from the oil leak itself will be the problem. The problem is that the escaping oil is creating a huge void under the seabed.

    We can’t be reading the same article, linked from BAs link.

    The one I’m reading is not providing any mechanism whatsoever! It just goes from drilling into “a geologically unstable region” (by what evidence?) to that having “set the stage” for a Ryskin gas release. It doesn’t even patch two models together, nor discuss any void.

    Oh, and it does take the leaked “oil and methane” as the Ryskin gas below all that, thus instead confusing models and claiming the oil leak methane will be the actual problem.

    Finally, as Rider says, why not compare? The accumulated oil leaks in Africa due to bad infrastructure and people systematically stealing oil from it is claimed to be the same order of magnitude as the US leak. [Sorry, don’t have the reference now; and IIRC it was a swedish article anyway.] And that is ongoing all year round, on a whole continent, in a at many places most sensitive and unique environment!

    That doesn’t tell us how much methane is leaked since it is another mode of leaks after eventual methane capture (or not; most likely it is burned off to contribute to AGW if the infrastructure is bad), but one can surmise the amount is not negligible. If Ryskin’s speculations scare you in US he should scare you elsewhere.

    Also, it shows how ROI isn’t maximized in trying to contain the leak. Likely less money had stopped the same amount of leak elsewhere. [/sigh]

  19. Johnc

    Hey Phil, Google “methane global warming”

    Then tell me you’re still skeptical.

  20. Confy

    There weren’t any churches in Conficius’s time. He did not say anything about churches. Don’t snag quotes from Sararh Palin’s imagination.

  21. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    The article I read on Helium claimed that a dome has grown up 50′ on the ocean floor…. So BP can now cap a shallow well. The article says that the dome covers massive amounts of methane……It wasn’t me! The dome is said to be causing cracks in the Gulf and when it blows it may kill most of the life on earth…….so who cares if Lebron left. This is all either going to happen in 6 months or it is a false alarm. BP decided to cap it now to avoid a class action from all the life on the earth. They are hoping that we will not blame them when the gas hits the fan. Go South Lebron. Go South. If it happens, I’m staying home from work, and not even calling off.

  22. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Budda Bing! Budda BANG!!!

  23. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Sorry folks! Since only maybe 2% of all life will be left, I can only future project myself beyond the big one. But don’t worry! I’ll file the class action for y’all.

  24. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    They are really capping it? DAMN! Did I really do it?

  25. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Get your checkbook out Phil.

  26. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Can I get the million in quarters? I need to go to the laundromat.

  27. Dunc

    The problem is that the escaping oil is creating a huge void under the seabed.

    That’s not how oil reservoirs work. The escaping oil is not creating a huge void under the seabed. Oil reservoirs are not huge caverns filled with oil which can emptied, they’re formations of permeable but nonetheless solid rock.

    We have no real idea if there are any threatening pockets of methane deeper down that will no longer be contained beneath the void.

    Methane, being lighter than oil, always collects at the top of the reservoir.

  28. JupiterIsBig

    I think there’s more methane being released due to melting of perma frost, and even more scarily due to melting of Clathrates under the Polar seas due to GW {Duck} (AGW and NGW) {/Duck}

    #23 A long time ago I read a story of how the island on Britain tipped into the North Sea due to all of the oil being pumped out in the 70s. Don’t they pump sea water in to prevent this now ? ;-)

  29. JupiterIsBig

    It was called “The Fifth Horseman” and I know they pump the sea water in to maximise the oil recovery.

  30. Chris

    We must nuke the methane before it gets out!

  31. I’m not TOO worried about methane emissions in the Gulf of Mexico. Methane releases from methane hydrate deposits in the Arctic, however, give me reason for concern. According to NASA estimates, methane is 33 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. And I’ve read some reports suggesting that methane hydrate (also known as methane clathrate) deposits are outgassing much more today because of marginal rises in ocean temperatures.

    Anyone ever read “Mother of Storms” by John Barnes? It’s a rather fascinating sci-fi novel in which he speculates about a catastrophic release of methane into the atmosphere thanks to … you guessed it … NUKING the methane clathrate deposits in the Arctic!

  32. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Lebron! Come Back! Let’s Talk! Things aren’t really that bad.

  33. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I’ll even put up half a million………….in quarters.

  34. Jamey

    Um – folks – for those of you worried about the methane clathrate deposits in the Arctic… That’s actually the source of a lot of BP’s problems, and and where this fear is coming from. Turns out there were a lot of clathrates down there.

  35. CW

    Bruce,

    I believe the article sort of mis-characterizes the intent. The NASA chief’s foremost mission isn’t to reach out to Muslims. What was asked of him was that when he reaches out to international space and science agencies that are relevant to a particular program or project, to be sure that we are reaching out to Muslims.

    The reasoning is that if more science contributions from Arab scientists could potentially offset some of the theistic extremism.

  36. Have no fear, our patented homeopathic remedies will cure all oil-based ills, on land and on sea.

    Order now and we’ll throw in a case of pre-recall Chef Boyardee SpaghettiOs ® , which have proven plasma pulsation properties which the government doesn’t want you to know about!

    Tribeca Mike #22341
    Federal Correctional Institution
    Marianna, Florida

  37. Sili

    But this way ‘they’ can say: “Look, the scare stories about the Gulf are all bunkum. Nothing to worry about!”

    /paranoid

  38. People have been known to pass out near me after I eat a bean burrito, but no actual extinctions.

  39. Daffy

    Hey, Bruce, Ronald Reagan did the exact same thing with NASA. I guess it was OK when a Republican did it (like everything else), and bad when a Democrat does it.

  40. Jeff

    What is likely to happen is the well will be capped soon, and the amount of oil out there will be dispersed. I’ve lived in Florida most of my life and have seen every little tropical storm blown way out of proportion in the media. This disaster , by 10 years from now, will rank below Katrina in terms of gulf states impact and probably a 3-4 on a scale of 1-10 in overall severity.

    Shame on you MSM for hyping every darned thing out of proportion and letting every kook such as on George Noory’s radio show have their 15 minutes of fame with their half-baked speculations.

    I taught physical sciences for 30 years and have to deal with every nook and cranny of every crazy (and not so crazy idea) out there because of the rumor mill among the students. They always pick all this stuff up unfiltered and give it to me to deal with.

  41. MaDeR

    My brain cells cries, reading some comments here.

  42. mike burkhart

    Good… now lets stop the leak by useing explosives to burry the leaking pipe under debire . This is the only way to stop this leek . But BP is more woried about its platform and profits then the envroment. We wont need nucler explosives conventional ones will do fine that is if we can convice BP to take the loss.

  43. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    They are waiting for the dome to expand enough to cap on dry land……island building…..BP island.

  44. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Why are they testing and being careful about capping the leak? They have been totally reckless up till now. If it doesn’t blow up…no problem. If it does blow up we still leak oil….isn’t that what is already happening as we wait for tests?

  45. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Put the damn lid on! It’s my money! And I want it now!……in quarters.

  46. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Come on Phil! I’m down to my last pair of clean shorts.

  47. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Can I file a claim for laundry delays?

  48. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.
  49. anon

    Why are you bringing George Noory into this? Phil Plait goes on Coast to Coast!

  50. @ 5o Jeremy wrote:

    You “skeptics” can’t touch this.

    Abiotic oil? Carbon dating to 100ka? Leaks in the sea floor? Really??? That article is stoopid to the nth. The person that wrote it can’t even get the most basic facts right; it is so far out there that it isn’t even wrong…

  51. @ 44 wrote:

    Why are they testing and being careful about capping the leak? They have been totally reckless up till now. If it doesn’t blow up…no problem. If it does blow up we still leak oil….isn’t that what is already happening as we wait for tests?

    The increase in pressure resulting from shutting it in could result in a compromise to the casing at various depths, and that could make a kill very difficult requiring multiple mud weights. Some people knowledgeable in petroleum extraction have surmised that there is a blowout at, IIRC, the hanger at 6500′ below the mud line. If so, that will complicate the kill. A bunch of blowouts could make the thing nearly impossible to kill.

    Why take the chance when the RW is so close to completion?

  52. @ 42 wrote:

    Good… now lets stop the leak by useing explosives to burry the pipe under debire . This is the only way to stop this leek .

    Have you ever stopped and wondered why no geologists of petro engineers have advocated explosives? The ideal is born from Soviet attempts at killing gas wells on land. And then, the fail rate was 20%!

    Here is a video of a gas blowout in Kazakhstan – 40 years later:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGHxVW1NbrQ

    The procedure was so dangerous, even the Soviets abandoned it.

    Too, have you ever wondered what happens when seismic waves pass through saturated unconsolidated clastics? Well, let me tell you- they liquefy. I have seen some structures(seismites) from the early Paleozoic that resulted from realitively minor earthquakes. They have been mapped for several hundred km2. An explosion would reek havoc to anything setting on the floor of the GoM within about 50 km.

    Then, there is the problem of formation fluids from deeper formations communicating with some shallower ones that could result from joints being created by the explosion. Think of a producing formation at 7000 psi suddenly receiving pressures of 12000 psi. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a well when that happened. It could lead to catastrophic failure at multiple locations.

    There are a lot of other reasons why the explosive option is silly. I have only touched on a couple, but a quick google check will indicate the danger of the option, and why most of those knowledgeable in petroleum extraction consider the ideal folly.

  53. @ 27 wrote:

    Methane, being lighter than oil, always collects at the top of the reservoir.

    At the depth of the Macondo blowout, the gas is in solution.

  54. Messier Tidy Upper

    One thing on dangers posed by methane – haven’t read all the comments here yet but still :

    I’ve seen both in a TV eco-thriller-drama (called Burn up on Aussie ABC TV earlier this year Ithink or less likely last year?) and in one those “crock of the week” videos here :

    http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=029130BFDC78FA33&sort_field=original&page=2

    (Sorry but I can’t recall exactly which one that scene was in.)

    methane bubbling up from melting permafrost and greatly escalating / contributing to global warming. People in both scenes go up and light into flame the methane gas pouring out from under the ice.

    In the BurnUp thriller this happens in Alaska somewhere & is the final proof that changes the lead characters views. In the “Crock of the Week” Youtube clip it is non-fictional and two people walk out onto a lake bottom that’s frozen over, pointing out in passing the slumping of tehground fromthe sub-surface melting, chip away at the ice creating a hole – then ignite the gas coming out.

    That’s scarier than the BP thing if the implications really are implying Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming as it would seem. :-(

  55. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    There! Now that I have future projected you all to the point where there is a cap on the well, I want my quarters Phil. Come on! I’m the only one to succeed so far. Even BP is still testing.

  56. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    DAMN! I Really did it!

  57. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I don’t suppose you could e-mail them to me. That would be faster than UPS.

  58. Messier Tidy Upper

    Me comment # 55:

    .. in one those “crock of the week” videos [snip!] (Sorry but I can’t recall exactly which one that scene was in.) methane bubbling up from melting permafrost and greatly escalating / contributing to global warming. People in both scenes go up and light into flame the methane gas pouring out from under the ice. In the “Crock of the Week” Youtube clip it is non-fictional and two people walk out onto a lake bed that’s frozen over, pointing out, in passing, the slumping of the ground from the sub-surface melting, chip away at the ice creating a hole – then ignite the gas coming out.

    Found it at last! Its here :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MozcU7woNNQ&feature=related

    from 6 minutes 10 to 6 minutes 40. Dramatic footage on the Polar ice Update posted 5th July 2009. :-)

  59. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Now, would you like me to future project you all to the point where we get Bin Laden?

  60. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Ante up Phil.

  61. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Double or nothing?

  62. Lurker

    Charles J. Slavis, Jr. Can you possibly shut up for at least 5 posts?

  63. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Sorry I missed you.

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