Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Disappearing Oil

How the mighty have fallen! BP is selling assets, reducing investment and cutting the dividend to pay the bills after the spill wiped £45 billion off the company’s market value, according to the Star yesterday (p B11). And Tony Hayward is exiting on October 01 and making way for American Robert Dudley to succeed him. Dudley’s challenge would be to overcome cleanup costs and liabilities from this environmental disaster, which analysts expect to exceed US$30 billion. And there may also be a political cost! He would need to convince American lawmakers BP should be allowed to keep drilling in the US. The Gulf is home to about 25 of the 40 production projects BP plans by 2015.

But enough of the bad news. The good news is that nearly two weeks after BP finally capped the biggest oil spill in US history, the oil slicks that once spread across thousands of miles of the Gulf of Mexico have largely disappeared. Nor has much oil washed up on the sandy beaches and marshes along the Louisiana coast. And the small cleanup army in the Gulf has only managed to skim up a tiny fraction of the millions of gallons of oil spilled in the 100 days since the Deepwater Horizon rig went up in flames.

So where did the oil go? I have taken the liberty to reproduce this news story from Yahoo! News posted July 28, 2010: "Some of the oil evaporates," explains Edward Bouwer, professor of environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University. That’s especially true for the more toxic components of oil, which tend to be very volatile, he says. Jeffrey W. Short, a scientist with the environmental group Oceana, told the New York Times that as much as 40 percent of the oil might have evaporated when it reached the surface.

But the other theory that is used to explain the oil’s disappearance is that the oil has been devoured by ravenous microbes. The lesson from past spills is that the lion’s share of the cleanup work is done by nature in the form of oil-eating bacteria and fungi. The microbes break down the hydrocarbons in oil to use as fuel to grow and reproduce. A bit of oil in the water is like a feeding frenzy, causing microbial populations to grow exponentially. Typically, there are enough microbes in the ocean to consume half of any oil spilled in a month or two, says Cornell University ecologist Richard Howarth, who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill. These microbes have been found in every ocean of the world sampled, from the Arctic to Antarctica. But there are reasons to think that the process may occur more quickly in the Gulf than in other oceans.

Microbes grow faster in the warmer water of the Gulf than they do in, say, the cool waters off Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez spill occurred. Moreover, the Gulf is hardly pristine. Even before humans started drilling for oil in the Gulf – and spilling lots of it – oil naturally seeped into the water. As a result, the Gulf evolved a rich collection of petroleum-loving microbes, ready to pounce on any new spill. The microbes are clever and tough, observes Samantha Joye, microbial geochemist at the University of Georgia. Joye has shown that oxygen levels in parts of the Gulf contaminated with oil have dropped. Since microbes need oxygen to eat the petroleum, that’s evidence that the microbes are hard at work.

Isn’t BP lucky to have these new-found allies?

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