Oil Spills from Man and Nature

Several news agencies published articles on the fifth anniversary of Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion describes the disaster. According to the Associated Press eleven workers were killed and from 100 to 172 million gallons of oil were spilled into the gulf during the three months it took to cap the well. The lower estimate is from British Petroleum (BP). Today the “Gulf of Mexico looks clean, green, and whole again, teeming with life—a testament to the teeming resilience of nature.” There are, however, problems that remain. There continues to be oil on the seafloor, dolphin deaths have tripled, nests of endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles have plummeted, deep sea coral have suffered, etc. Many probably thought the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill couldn’t be topped, but Deepwater Horizon more than eclipsed that 10 million gallon spill.

If there is any good news about oil spills, it might be that nature has been dealing with cleanup of oil in the oceans for eons. One study has estimated that between 80 and 800 million gallons of oil has seeped out of the ocean floor off Santa Barbara, California at the rate of 20 to 25 tons of oil each day. I know there are seeps in the Gulf. We learned on a family vacation to Texas that you didn’t walk barefoot on our beach. You wore cheap beach shoes and tossed the tar-coated shoes when you were finished your vacation.

I’m not trying to minimize the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That spill released waves of oil into the Gulf, and the sea life, birds, and wildlife paid a high price. However, nature has been dealing with “cleanup” of oil spills long before we began to get involved. Some of it evaporates, some of it is dissolved, but microbes have the greatest effect. Researchers studying the spill (and science has received a tremendous infusion of money for studies) found that most of the oil was degraded by microbes. It appears that they “stopped eating, leaving a small fraction of compounds in the sediments.” A marine chemist said that research is now focused on why the microbes left a small fraction of the compounds in the sediment.

Hopefully our oil exploration is safer because of what Deepwater Horizon taught us, and maybe our researchers will learn how to encourage microbes that love to feed on spilled oil.

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