The Seattle Times: Despite BP efforts to clean Gulf, nature will do most of it
Now that BP has shut off oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from its broken well for the first time in 12 weeks, the company faces a herculean task of cleaning up the region's oily mess.
While BP has hired thousands of people to boom, skim and burn large amounts of crude, the bulk of an estimated 200 million gallons of oil that spewed into the water is actually beyond human reach. As a result, the ultimate cleanup will be left to nature and to colonies of oil-chomping microbes.
Two factors contributed. First, the crude oil gushed deep beneath the surface and was moved in unknown directions across the Gulf by uncharted currents. Then BP used dispersants to break the oil into tiny bits.
Capturing most of the spill is now all but impossible to do.
Even the consequences are hard to gauge. Scientists can't predict how quickly the microbes will work or how much damage the oil will do first.
"I think the bottom line is that once the oil gets into the water column — not just the surface — the genie is out of the bottle (and) that we do not have any effective ways to get the genie back into the bottle," said Robert Bea, a University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor and an expert on offshore drilling.
Bea said that two of the newer approaches used by BP to combat the blowout didn't work very well. The unprecedented use of chemical dispersants — more than 1.8 million gallons — helped keep oil off beaches, where people notice it, but the dispersants were ineffective and environmentally destructive, he said. And the "A Whale," a converted tanker made into a skimmer more than three football fields in length, won't be effective in the turbulent water of the open ocean, Bea said.
The company that owns the vessel, TMT Offshore Group of Taiwan, concluded Friday after several days of tests that the oil was too dispersed in deep water for the skimmer to work effectively.
The Coast Guard says nearly 33 million gallons of oily water have been recovered; as much as 15 percent of that — or nearly 5 million gallons — is oil. They estimate that nearly 11 million gallons of oil have been burned.
In addition, BP says it has flared or recovered 826,800 barrels (about 34.7 million gallons).
That's more than 50 million gallons pulled out of the Gulf — or roughly a quarter of the 200 million gallons that entered it.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration created a model and calculated a recovered total that was somewhat different, determining that about a third of the oil had been recovered or cleaned up.
Terry Hazen, a scientist at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and an expert in using natural processes to clean up toxic compounds, said as long as the naturally occurring microbes have enough nutrients, they'd work quickly in the 84-degree water at the surface.
Hazen estimates that the oil could be gone in months, or possibly years.
As the microbes work, they consume oxygen. Scientists worry those oxygen-depleted areas could damage undersea life. Samantha Joye, an oceanographer from the University of Georgia, said she found areas in the deep-water plumes of oil where oxygen levels had declined. Located about five to six miles from the wellhead where the oil had been in the water longest, the microbes have used up the oxygen.
Oil can be toxic to marine life, "but it also can completely biodegrade," Hazen said. "We're going to have to wait and see. I suspect that at the surface, where the temperatures are fairly high, it will degrade fairly rapidly."
Microbes won't work as well deep in the sand on wet beaches, where the oxygen they need is limited, he said.
Aggressive efforts to speed up treatment might be appropriate in some sensitive areas on shore, but the treatment could also be more toxic than the oil itself, Hazen said. Adding fertilizers might make the oil degrade faster, but could cause other long-term problems.
Congress is looking to science to find better ways to handle the risks of the nation's continued quest for oil.
A bill now in the House of Representatives attempts to strengthen and streamline the federal management of the research on how to respond to oil spills.
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