Gulf oil spill—kill it with fire?


How do you stop an ongoing 1000 barrels 5000-barrels-a-day oil spill from reaching sensitive coastal habitats?

Maybe you burn it.

With options dwindling, the Coast Guard started test burns last night, and is likely to do some larger patches today.

It sounds a little crazy. Yes. But, we're past good solutions here and on to the world of slightly-less-shitty. Frankly, that oil was going to get burned (and the CO2 emissions produced) anyway, had it not spilled out of the broken well all over the freaking Gulf of Mexico. And the particulate pollution is less of a threat than the oil itself would be to animal lives and human health/livelihoods if this stuff makes landfall.

Based solely on foggy, childhood memories of the Exxon Valdez spill, one might be tempted to think that an oil spill on land can be cleaned up effectively. But Treehugger points out that job isn't as easy, or successful, as you might think. The stress of cleanup can kill as easily as oil. Plus, there's the massive expense involved. And the oil is only about 20 miles away from Louisiana.

For the record, cleanup crews have already been suctioning up the oil and using chemical treatments to break it down and disperse it. Burning is a last-ditch effort, and probably will only be used in spots where the oil is thickest and difficult to get rid of fast enough any other way. It's also worth noting that this isn't just tossing a match out onto the waves. There's a protocol here, which involves corralling oil inside a fireproof enclosure. The burns are controlled. Each lasts about an hour and gets rid of more than 90 percent of the oil. What's leftover can be easily skimmed off.

Historical photo of burning oil tanker courtesy Flickr user paddling, via CC


  1. Someone’s told them that “nuke it from orbit, it’s the only way to make sure” is not a viable alternate cleanup method, right?

    1. Yes, you point the Solidifier Gun at the oil mass, and press the “somehow” button, and pull the trigger. Damn thing works like a charm.

    2. I would assume that if such technology existed, it would already be in use and these desperate measures would not be necessary.

      Or it may exist and already be implemented, but is insufficient for dealing with the size of the spill.

    3. Solidifiers exist, but they’re hard to use on a spill of this size. The amount of area involved, and the fact that it’s on a body of water, makes it impractical.

      I’m sure it will be used once the oil hits landfall, but only for limited applications.

    4. Yes we do have this ability. Adding caustic soda or other alkali will turn in into soap. Then we will have an ocean full of soap.

  2. And the best thing about burning the oil?
    It’s estimated to effectively remove almost 3 percent of the spill! That only leaves 97% of the thousands and thousands of gallons of oil to worry about.

    Drill baby drill!

  3. Im sure this is somehow big government and the unions fault. The business was forced to cut corners because of tyranny.

    Also my previous post was intended to be a reply to kaffeen not weaponx, sorry

  4. Oooo! earthquakes, volcanoes, corporate collapse, double birdstrike and now lakes of fire – BINGO! I got the top row of my Revelation Bingo Card!!! Bingo Bingo Bingo

  5. ■════════════■
    â•‘ IF ALL â•‘
    â•‘ ELSE FAILS â•‘
    â•‘ USE FIRE. â•‘

  6. Cuyahoga may be burned in an Xer’s head as a radio hit when REM was at the top of their game, and less so for the event that spawned the popular local ecology movement. Perhaps there will be a more contemporary artist to sing paeans to the eco-disasters of our current times.

  7. Oil is naturally occurring thing. Yea, big quantities, can gum up beaches, kill some things and cause some problems. But after you clean up the big stuff, and let the rest naturally attenuate, the natural breakdown of the hydrocarbons is actually beneficial for the surrounding environment.

    “Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water. However, this also displaced and destroyed the microbial populations on the shoreline; many of these organisms (e.g. plankton) are the basis of the coastal marine food chain, and others (e.g. certain bacteria and fungi) are capable of facilitating the biodegradation of oil. At the time, both scientific advice and public pressure was to clean everything, but since then, a much greater understanding of natural and facilitated remediation processes has developed, due somewhat in part to the opportunity presented for study by the Exxon Valdez spill.”

    Is it bad, yea, is it the end of the world and some proof humans are some blight on the earth? No, before oil became a commodity, there were natural springs where it rose up from the earth naturally, yes, mother earth created her own oil spills.

  8. Something important to note about this is that the spill’s location makes it difficult to clean using more advanced methods. Although chemical dispersal methods can be used in deep-water spills, the use of those methods actually retards the growth of coral reef species more than the oil itself does, due to the breakdown mechanisms they use. It is literally better for a coral reef to get covered in oil than it is for them to get covered in half-dissolved oil and chemical or biological dispersants. The position of this spill close to coastal reef waters is why the old methods of skimming and burning are likely to work best.

  9. This is going to be all doom and gloom, so be forewarned:

    I am not an expert, but from things I’ve been seeing most experts are extremely skeptical that anyone will be able to contain the leaking oil.

    They are scrambling to get giant metal domes out there from a company in Europe that makes them. The idea is that the domes can be placed on each leak to direct it into tubes for collection. You’d think they would have them on-site already in case of an emergency like this. They probably didn’t have them already though because no one actually thinks the domes will work. They’ve never been used deeper than 300ft down or with leaks this powerful. Not to mention all of the collapsed pipe and other debris from the Deep Horizon that has piled up right on top of the leaks. Even if all the domes work there will still be leaking, they are not considered a permanent solution.
    The domes are apparently either a PR stunt or an act of desperation.

    The other big idea is to drill an intersect. Regardless of whether the domes do actually work they will be attempting this because it is the only thing that has a real chance of actually ending the leaks. BP is saying they are hoping to get it done in 30 days. I think most experts do not believe this is possible. In the best case scenario things like this take at least 30 days in shallow water. It’s never been done in deeper than around 250ft or in conditions like these, and apparently it tends to take multiple attempts even in the best conditions. It may be that the pressures at the leaks are too great and/or the collapsed pipes and debris will prevent them from ever getting an intersect in.

    I don’t think they will be able to stop the leaks.

    Also, do not be surprised if they revise the rate of leaking upwards by another order of magnitude:

    Oh yeah, and it’s hurricane season soon.

    I believe this is extremely likely to become one of the worst environmental disasters in human history.

    1. your article claims they estimate its leaking 20,000 barrels of oil a day. That’s ridiculous, I don’t know of any well that’s producing 20,000 bopd. 20,000 bopd is a good field, not a single well.

  10. ■════════════■
    â•‘ IF ALL     â•‘
    â•‘ ELSE FAILS â•‘
    â•‘ USE FIRE.  â•‘

    Darn you ‘PRE’ tag!
    (Sorry to double post)

  11. Now yes NO to putting any oil rigs off the coast of southern Florida. We have fought this issues for years because of this type of crisis.

  12. I predict this will be the worst ecological disaster our Gulf Coast has ever seen. What will change because of it, I have no idea.

    1. Real possible. Forwarded to me from guy in the business. Reads like an official Horizon statement:

      “In the coming weeks they will move in at least one other rig to drill a fresh well that will intersect the blowing one at its pay zone. They will use technology that is capable of drilling from a floating rig, over 3 miles deep to an exact specific point in the earth – with a target radius of just a few feet plus or minus. Once they intersect their target, a heavy fluid will be pumped that exceeds the formation’s pressure, thus causing the flow to cease and rendering the well safe at last. It will take at least a couple of months to get this done, bringing all available technology to bear. It will be an ecological disaster if the well flows all of the while; optimistically, it could bridge off downhole.”

    2. > I predict this will be the worst ecological disaster our Gulf Coast has ever seen. What will change because of it, I have no idea.

      +1 on “worst ecological disaster”.

      What will Change is Obama will have a slightly easier time reforming Big Oil. If you thought the HMOs fought fair…

    3. “I predict this will be the worst ecological disaster our Gulf Coast has ever seen.”

      Ixtoc I in 1970/80 set a pretty high standard for Gulf disasters.

  13. “There’s a protocol here, which involves corralling oil inside a fireproof enclosure.”
    Would this “fireproof enclosure” happen to be the ocean?

  14. I’ve never used a single Exxon branded product or purchased anything from an Exxon station since the Valdez incident. I am very proud of that.

    There need to be consequences. WE ARE OBLIGATED TO EITHER DO SOMETHING OR SHUT THE FUCK UP. I prefer to do something, in this case I’ve voted with my wallet.

    It doesn’t matter if it was an unavoidable accident, sabotage, or anything else. There still need to be consequences, or nothing will ever change.

    Be the change you want in the world.

  15. When the supertanker Torrey Canyon ran aground off Cornwall, the RAF and Fleet Air Arm were sent out to bomb the wreck in an attempt to set the spreading oil slick on fire. My understanding is that the tactic was largely ineffective, and large areas of the French and Cornish coast were contaminated.

    I used to know a Cornish woman whose house was partly built of beach stone from the area: you could see traces of oil from the Torrey Canyon on some of the stones.

  16. I was wondering what amount of oil was spilled into the seas during each World War – and what was the long term environmental damage?

  17. +2 Karma points to whoever wrote:

    “There’s a protocol here, which involves corralling oil inside a fireproof enclosure.”
    Would this “fireproof enclosure” happen to be the ocean?

    It was exactly what I was thinking. The other two points that conjured up on my mind was:

    1) This sounds like a line from some shitty post apocalyptic movie: “Today we burned the Ocean, Tomorrow is Uncertain…” Insert Zombies or roving gangs of filthy Australians… :)

    2) Isn’t one of the signs of the biblical Apocalypse, as in the one written in the bible, the fact that the oceans will boil? Just sayin’….

  18. Now all that’s needed is a hurricane to blow through there and cause an oily storm surge to cover the whole region.

    This – is – ugly.

    A drastic measure is needed. I wonder if a -large- explosive placed at the leak could seal the hole….

    1. About the same as if the rig never blew up and the oil was refined and put into our cars to burn.

      1. I ought to guess the footprint is less, if refining & burning are much more accurate, producing more raw CO2 (and H20). Burning raw crude would keep much of the C in long molecules – partial combustion products – that would pollute the sea & kill various critters.

        Drill, baby, drill!

  19. Hey! That’s a new one! Instead “War for Oil” it’s “War against Oil”. Ooraa! Oh and: YES, please burn the oil! That’s SO MUCH better than just having proper measures in place preventing this mess from happening. At least the news headlines changed for now – all that stuff about climate-change really got boring…

  20. Why, for the love of Pete, is there not a cut-off valve placed on the pipe where it goes into the sea floor? Surely this isn’t year 2500 super tech beyond our capabilities.

  21. Too bad that burning an oil spill (to paraphrase Doug Helton) nets an average 3% depletion of the slick, and even then only where its most concentrated and congealed. The rest of the 97% continues to drift shoreward, while the manpower needed elsewhere is tied up lighting fires on the water, etc.
    Friggin brilliant.

    “There’s a protocol here…The burns are controlled.”

    Well, I certainly hope so. I mean, we wouldn’t want the location to share in the history of governmental fuckups, now would we?

    “Each lasts about an hour and gets rid of more than 90 percent of the oil.”

    Don’t be confused. What he meant to say is “90% of the oil /that’s been successfully corralled/”, and not 90% of the spill, of course. So, that puts us at what? single-digit percents again?

    “What’s leftover can be easily skimmed off.”

    So what’s the worry, then? Oh, right. I forgot. You mean what’s leftover from the single-digit percent that’s been corralled in controlled burns while the rest of the 5,000 gallons A DAY drifts quietly toward Louisiana’s shores. Sorry. My bad.

    Do yourselves a favor, eschew BoingBoing’s investigative journalism skills and listen to an expert instead: Doug Helton, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s emergency response division.

  22. As to cleaning it up on land: the land in question is marshland – they’re full of nesting birds of many species, right now, as this is their reproductive season. The waters around the marsh are full of baby shrimp, also just beginning their season. There are about 400 species of birds, fish, shellfish, and animals at serious risk from this oil making it to land.

  23. nytimes reports that 50% (not 90% or 3%) of the oil will be burned in each ‘corral’. read: no one f-ing knows

  24. Spill Baby Spill!
    The valve at the wellhead DOESN’T WORK?!?! Unbelievable.

    NY Times: “Such burning also works only when oil is corralled to a certain thickness. Burns may not be effective for most of this spill, of which 97 percent is estimated to be an oil-water mixture.”

    I suspect that the burning is mainly theater, to give the impression that something useful can be done.

  25. Looks pretty bad, for sure. This is the problem though, in order to carry on consuming oil at the rate we – developed OECD countries – do we need to get all the oil we can.

    The deepwaters off the US need to be exploited, but operating on the technological frontier as the Macondo well was accidents will happen. There’s no point in the NIMBY thing, it just means the same sort of work gets sent overseas, which is fine if we’re from rich countries, not so fine if we’re living in the Niger Delta.

    Anon 36 – wells have flowed at 20,000 bpd although it is unusual. You are correct in saying Macondo has not reached that level, I believe.

  26. knw wht Grg Bsh wld hv dn – nd qckly! ftr cnsltng wth ths wh ndrstnd hw t hndl sch prdcmnts, ys, ths grdy l ppl wh pt thr lvs n jprdy wrkng n ny l wll st, Bsh wld hv rgd brnff f th lght, swt l, n ctn whch cld hv rmvd 90 prcnt f th l bfr t cld mk t t shr. (xxn Vldz l ws t hvy t s sm tchnq.) Ys, t wld hv hd sm ndsrbl ffcts n wldlf, bt nw thy hv hd t wt s lng tht mch mr dmg wll ns. bm twddld hs thmbs t lng bfr grpplng wth th sttn. H ndd mmdt dvc frm rl tchncl xprts n th fld. Th l bsnss s vry cmplctd nd ts prblms shld nt b lft t th cllss t slv.

    1. Yeah, right. George W. Bush is a decisive man of action. That’s why he did so well the last time there was a big disaster in the Gulf near Louisiana… oh, wait.

      1. Yeah, but we’re talking about oil being spilled. That’s the one thing that might’ve made W spring into action.

        1. Only if there was a way to siphon it up and sell it to Halliburton, or if it was threatening Trent Lott’s house. Otherwise, he’d send Heckuva-Job Brownie to take care of it.

  27. Possible alternative solution:Instead of focusing on burning the oil on the surface,What about igniting the oil 5000 feet below the surface of the water. In other words, create a sub-sea fire by igniting the oil at the well. Burn it from it’s point of exit using the robot to ignite it. Although this could cause an underwater explosion-so what. BURN IT !!! It WILL burn underwater!!!

  28. um, that would be a real trick, douglas,

    where do you get the oxidizer need to burn said oil?

    its not going to burn underwatrer, if it could it would have burned all the way to the well head already-

    it lacks a oxidizer source (air) temprature (ambient temprature at 5000 is 27 degrees F, the watrere is below freezing at the surface, only kept from freezing by the 176 atmophers of pressure, (2100 pounds per square inch)

    most subs cant go that depth

    so I dont thing your going to be able to burn it at the source.. too much physics in the way

  29. has a Eco friendly solution to clean up the tragedy British Petroleum has created, please watch the video animation: and pass this along to as many people as you know.

    One person can still make a difference in this world, is that simple interactions have a rippling effect. Each time this gets pass along, the hope in cleaning our planet is passed on.

  30. You wanted cheaper oil, now you’re getting it!
    Hey, you get what yo wish for! Right?
    Anyways, burning is good, very good. But to burn
    the oil means to heat up the surface of the water
    even faster than what global warming can cause. I
    say burn, at the SOURCE. Or at least block up the
    source so that more oil doesn’t spill. Come on,
    how hard it is to install a new blowout preventer?

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