How a big oil spill turns good cleanup plans upside down


Two weeks ago, BP CEO Tony "I'd like my life back" Hayward tried to deny independent scientists' findings that oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill wasn't confined to the surface of the water. Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sided with the independent reports—with the head of NOAA adding, "We have always known there is oil under the surface."

As Mother Jones points out, it's pretty inevitable that there would be oil underwater, given that the whole point of using chemical dispersants is to break the oil down into droplets and allow those droplets to sink, so they can be more easily eaten by the hydrocarbon-guzzling microbes that live in the water—a strategy that works quite well in smaller oil spills, using the smaller doses of dispersants approved by the EPA.

But dose makes the poison—both with dispersants and oil droplets, themselves. The plumes, in this case, are so large that, as microbes devour them, that process depletes all the oxygen in the surrounding water. Essentially, it's the same thing that happens in the Gulf Dead Zone.

Likewise, oil sunk by dispersants doesn't wash up on the beach—again, a good thing in smaller spills. Here, though, it ends up creating a threat to underwater ecosystems, especially coral reefs.

(PHOTO: Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite on June 7, 2010. "At least part of the oil slick is pale gray. A large area of oil is southeast of the Mississippi Delta, at the site of the leaking British Petroleum well. Traces of thick oil are also visible farther north.")


  1. Likewise, oil sunk by dispersants doesn’t wash up on the beach—again, a good thing in smaller spills. Here, though, it ends up creating a threat to underwater ecosystems, especially coral reefs.

    If I was a public relations goon I’d probably advise BP that it’s better to destroy a reef than a beach. Televised images of destroyed beachfront property and oil-soaked pelicans do a lot more damage than reports about dead anemones.

  2. Hurricane season just started June 1

    (Oil + Corexit 9500 / Evaporation ) + Hurricane =??

    1. “(Oil + Corexit 9500 / Evaporation ) + Hurricane =??”

      Until recently, BP would have said “Profit!!” but now I think the plan is to have the oil inundate New Orleans to finish the job. At this point, I think Iran is paying them to destroy the US. The tankers the oil is being put into will most likely be used to spread oil slicks to both coasts.

  3. I saw lots of pea sized oil balls in the water yesterday in Orange Beach, AL. I think that they will actually land on the beach, and be a hell of a lot harder to collect.

  4. Could you please say “dose makes the poison” every day from now until the end of time? Because I’ve been saying it for years and years and it just doesn’t seem to make an impression on people. Maybe you guys can get it across.

  5. Are there any websites tracking the distance reached by the oil spill? I’m planning a vacation to Florida for July and was worried as to exactly how far the oil spill’s arms have reached.

  6. I thought it was common knowledge by now that all BP is doing is positioning itself to support it’s legal team. BP’s idea of a cleanup plan is information management everything else that’s said is incidental to that goal.

    The whole issue of oil plumes in water was nicely studied by the MMS some time ago in 2000, but never quite released for another 5 years:

    Project “Deep Spill”

    A joint industry project (JIP) was formed between the MMS and 23 different oil companies to conduct this research. The project consisted of an experimental release of oil and gas conducted in June 2000 off the coast of Norway. Mixtures of crude oil and natural gas, diesel oil and natural gas, as well as only natural gas were released at approximately 800 meters water depth. The goal was to simulate a blowout or pipeline rupture in deep water and obtain data to verify the predictions of a deep water blowout model being developed under a separate contract. In another, related, research project, experiments were conducted in a simulated deep ocean environment created in a high pressure chamber located at the University of Hawaii.

    So the story we should be discussing is somewhat different than this simple denial of reality when one issue is why we seem to accept their position as having any validity at all.

    An even larger issue is why we have allowed this pursuit of greed to destroy the Gulf ocean’s environment as some simple cost of their business, in order to serve our apparent need for cheap gasoline.

    1. There is a simple two word answer to your question as to why this was allowed to happen: campaign contributions.

  7. Duh! If the microbes need oxygen, load the Gulf with a few billion tons of potassium nitrate. I heard it’s an oxidizer.

  8. The thing is, there is no way to actually, “clean up” a major oil spill. Even under ideal conditions (which are rare) only a fraction of the oil can be captured.

    That’s why I say: The only winning move is not to drill.

  9. I’ve a paranoid slant.

    I wonder how fast BP is moving equipment and other resources to completely offshore entities.

    I suspect this “we will fix all the issues generated by the oil spill” stance will go away after a long set of delaying tactics.

    But of course, I’m a paranoid type fellow.

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