Friday, July 16, 2010

BP oil disaster: good news for the moment

So far, BP cap is working to seal the Deepwater Horizon oil geyser, according to the news reports: Fred Tasker and Curis Morgang, Gulf oil spill cap appears to be holding Miami Herald 07/16/2010. The wait isn't over on this phase. BP expects to test the pressure build-up until Saturday to see if this fix will seal the well for now while they work on the relief wells, or whether they will need to go back to siphoning off oil and/or letting some oil go back to spewing into the water. (If you read between the lines in this story, it sounds like BP is more eager than the Coast Guard to use this as a permanent cap, presumably hoping that a relief well would make that more feasible.)

I'm for being cautiously optimistic, emphasis on cautious. I was struck by this passage from the Tasker/Morgang report:

In Pensacola Beach, having arrived Thursday night, Tanginna and Wyman Atwood of Paragould, Ark., wasted no time heading to the beach early Friday morning. News that the BP containment cap continued to work was welcome news to the married couple.

"It's just a matter of mother nature taking over from here," Wyman Atwood said as he held his wife's hand and walked by the water.

For the past 25 years, Mona Leigh Bernhardt, 44, has vacationed along Pensacola Beach, but what was once a strip of beach packed with tourists has been largely empty since tar balls first came ashore in early June. Though the stream of sludge has remained 100 miles to the west of Pensacola for the past week, visitors have largely kept away. [my emphasis]
Atwood's comment about Mother Nature reminded me of my favorite saying from the X-Files' Fox Mulder: "You should always respect nature, because nature has no respect for you."

That may not sound like an environment-friendly comment. But it is an environmentally conscious one. The laws of nature work the way they work. If we work with them, they can be very beneficial to humanity. If we ignore them or take reckless risks, they can work in ways that aren't so advantageous to people.

In this case, thanks to BP recklessness and the federal government's irresponsible system of non-regulation, we are conducting an unprecedented science experiment in the Gulf, particularly with the large amount of underwater oil "plumes." These are largely small droplets produced by oil being blasted into the seawater at high pressure from nearly a mile under the surface.

One of the things we do know from more limited experience with such oil plume is that microbes will eat the oil. They also consume large amounts of oxygen in the process. One likely result is that this will create significant dead zones in the Gulf - in addition to the seasonal one in the northern Gulf produced by runoff from nitrate fertilizers - in which larger life forms can't survive. (See Chris Kromm, GULF WATCH: Life in the Dead Zone Facing South 07/06/2010; David Biello, Slick Solution: How Microbes Will Clean Up the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Scientific American Online 05/25/2010)

And, as the tag line from one of the Godzilla movies put it, "size matters." Since there has never been underwater oil plumes this size - and we still don't know how large it actually is, and I'm guessing it's going to turn out to be closer to the higher than the lower end of the estimates we've been hearing (considering that BP has been trying hard to minimize the scope of the problem in its PR).

The unknowns include how far the plumes will travel, how much of it will surface and oil the beaches, and what the particular effect will be on the lower-oxygen water at the deepest levels affected.

David Biello discusses some of the longer-term problem we could be facing in Lasting Menace: Gulf oil-spill disaster likely to exert environmental harm for decades Scientific American Magazine July 2010:

The toxic compounds in oil vary, but the most worrisome are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as napthalenes, benzene, toluene and xylenes. All can sicken humans, animals and plants. "These hydrocarbons are particularly relevant if inhaled or ingested," says environmental toxicologist Ronald J. Kendall of Texas Tech University. "In the bodies of organisms such as mammals or birds, these aromatic hydrocarbons can be transformed into even more toxic products, which can affect DNA." The mutations that might result could lead to reduced fertility, cancer and other problems. ...

... to scientists’ surprise, plumes of oil extending several kilometers were floating roughly 1,000 meters beneath the surface, where the toxic compounds are literally washing off the oil and contaminating the water. Those components "can be more pervasive in finding ways to infiltrate a salt marsh" and impact wildlife, Reddy says. And there's a lot of wildlife to impact: some 16,000 species of plants and animals live in the Gulf of Mexico, according to marine biologist Thomas Shirley of Texas A&M University. Many of their habitats “are at risk of being affected, but we don’t have any direct way to know which ones or in what amount,” remarked marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a May 12 press conference on the spill. ...

In regard to long-term damage, researchers worry most about landfall. "Once the oil, because of high tides or high winds, gets into the coastal wetland, it gets trapped in the sediment," notes Héctor M. Guzmán of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, who studied the effects of the 1986 spill off Panama. "Then for decades you continue to see oil coming back out." Particularly critical are marshes, which are nurseries for wildlife ranging from fish to birds; contamination there could damage embryos and affect a species for generations. [my emphasis]

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