Saturday, July 31, 2010

Way too soon for starry-eyed optimism about BP's science experiment

"We've never dealt with this before, the complication of this much oil coming from the deep sea and being hit heavily with chemical dispersants," said Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University. "We have conducted the largest environmental toxicology experiment in the history of this country in the Gulf of Mexico." [my emphasis] (Curtis Morgan, When will oil spill be cleaned up? Maybe never McClatchy Newspapers 07/30/2010)
Morgan reports that the size of the oil slick has shrunken considerably:

A massive slick once the size of Florida has shrunk faster than anyone expected. The Coast Guard reported blue water over the Deepwater Horizon site last week and so little floating oil that skimming vessels were burning more fuel motoring around the Gulf than they were finding.

Though incomplete, initial field surveys found less than 400 acres of oiled Louisiana marsh, with most oil collected along the outer fringes. Gov. Bobby Jindal even reopened some bayou waters to commercial fishing on Friday. ...

Yet even combining natural forces with months of burning, skimming and siphoning, the most optimistic estimates suggest tens of millions of gallons remain in the Gulf. It could be soaked into unsurveyed marshes, adrift in countless gobs too small and scattered to show up in satellite images or — most concerning — still under water.

Much of what remains will likely be difficult, or impossible, to capture or clean up.
But it strikes me that the reporting in this article is uneven. One of the problems of the BP/federal response to the oil disaster is that BP has been keeping much of the scientific research it has gathered secret, and the federal government has been slow to produced the kind of intensive scientific research that was clearly going to be needed from the day it became clear that we were dealing with a potentially months-long geyser of oil spewing into the Gulf.

Morgan's article in the early paragraphs presents a rosy picture of the self-healing powers of the Gulf, without noting that the self-healing may get rid of the oil from the water but have other negative effect for people. Some oil will be taken from the water into the food chain. Part of the effect of microbes biodegrading the oil will be a spike in the amount of oxygen absorbed, which is virtually certain to produce "dead zones" in the Gulf in which larger organisms can't survive so long as the low-oxygen conditions persist. And what the particular effects will be on the deepest depths of the water affected, in which the water is lower-oxygen than nearer the surface, is a major unknown.

And since we still don't know the actual magnitude of the underwater oil "plumes", it seems starry-eyed optimistic to be gushing [groan] about how well the ocean is cleaning itself. Obviously, BP has a definite self-interest in encouraging such optimism, as does the oil industry generally. As noted below, Morgan's own article provides substantial reasons to not indulge in the false optimism reflected in the early paragraphs.

One limitation of much of the reporting on this BP oil disaster is that in previous such incidents, the oil spilled into the water manifested itself as surface oil. In this case, the underwater oil is the biggest problem and a large unknown. Morgan does reference one of the implications of this in his article, in a section which raises obvious questions about the optimistic hype earlier in the piece:

Rocky Kistner of the Natural Resources Defense Council found plenty in plain and ugly sight during a 10-mile trip last week along the Louisiana delta into Barataria Bay.

Kistner, who mans the Gulf Resource Center that NRDC set up in the delta fishing village of Buras, documented the mess on his blog to counter perceptions the Gulf was clean again, a spin he dismissed as "deception by dispersal."

While BP and federal managers were stressing how hard it had become to find enough oil to skim, Kistner was motoring with a local fisherman through big, mostly lifeless pockets of what resembled "spongy orange cake batter'' that put out an overpowering odor "like being stuck in a gas station with all the pump nozzles pointing at your face."

Local shrimpers, he said, worry BP's heavy use of chemical dispersants, sanctioned by the federal government as a trade-off to keep oil from fragile marshes and off vulnerable sea birds, instead has left it to settle into their fishing grounds, out of sight and mind.
Hugh Kaufman, an EPA whistleblower in this incident, argues that BP's reckless use of toxic dispersants was done to take advantage of the fact that the public and the federal government have become accustomed to thinking of oil disasters like this as a problem of surface oil (EPA Whistleblower Hugh Kaufman: We've Now Poisoned Thousands of Square Miles of the Gulf Crooks and Liars 07/30/2010):

KAUFMAN: Well, first of all, the dispersants mixed with the oil and the water is extremely toxic. Sweden has done studies on this. Israel has done studies on this.

And the only real purpose of using so many dispersants with the oil was to cover up the volume of oil that was released from that well. So, that and lying about how much is coming out was a mechanism to help BP save billions of dollars in fines.

O‘DONNELL: Should they have not used dispersants at all?

KAUFMAN: That‘s correct. If they did not use dispersants, they would have been able to get most of that oil off of the surface and would not have endangered all of the fish and ecosystem underneath the water that now will be affected for decades on down the line.

I was listening to some of the, quote, "experts" who are being paid by BP at universities who are saying that the oil has disappeared. It hasn‘t disappeared. It‘s throughout thousands of square miles in the Gulf, mixed with dispersants, and because the temperatures down there are so cold, they‘re going to be around for decades. [my emphasis]
After months of dramatic proof that cockeyed optimism about the safety of deepwater drilling, it's foolish for anyone (other than BP and the oil industry that have a financial stake in promoting that perception) to minimize the actual and potential problems from this disaster.

As Morgan reports, the ongoing risks are huge:

BP's blownout well poured 10 to 20 times the volume of oil into the Gulf of Mexico than the Exxon Valdez spill into Prince William Sound in Alaska. BP added another 1.8 million gallons of Corexit, a dispersant federal environmental regulators acknowledge can kill or disrupt reproduction in everything from plankton to fish.

The oil giant's submersible robots pumped three-quarters of a million gallons directly into the flow at the sea-floor, a technique never tried or tested before. Scientists suspect the dispersant contributed to the creation of the massive plumes discovered extending as far as 142 miles in one direction from the blown-out well and 42 miles in another.

"That's really the big, big issue," said Susan Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Maine. "Once you have got that dispersed oil, there is no way to clean it."

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