Scitech  The BP oil spill: one year later

The continuing consequences of Deepwater Horizon’s mismanagement

The first anniversary of the massive explosion aboard the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon is approaching. The April 20, 2010 explosion, caused by a failure of the blowout preventer, ruptured the oil well at a depth of 1.5 kilometres below the ocean’s surface. The resulting gusher at the well head eventually dumped nearly 5 million barrels (some 700,000 metric tonnes) of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Efforts to stop the flow were hampered by the technical difficulties of working at such an extreme depth, and the well was only capped when a relief well was drilled five months later. Since then, the Gulf oil disaster has largely faded from the public eye, but we are only now seeing the beginning of long-term problems that will affect the region for years to come.

Despite technical increases in the ability required for oil companies to drill at ever-increasing depths, the technologies to clean up spills have not fundamentally changed in more than thirty years, even since the Gulf disaster. The offshore drilling in the Gulf approved by the Obama administration features the same blowout preventers that we now know are prone to blowout. The safety report from BP that is cited in these latest applications is dated 2009, before the Deepwater Horizon failure. This failure to enforce standards is unsurprising in an industry where the “impartial” regulators have significant connections to lobbyists.

As for their advertised commitment to safety, BP’s research budget to address oil spill issues in the past twenty years was exactly zero dollars. Nevertheless, the cleanup effort was undertaken by BP in conjunction with minimal oversight by the U.S. government. From the beginning, troubling patterns of behaviour emerged in BP’s efforts, all seemingly aimed at minimizing the visible impact of the spill. There were instances of journalists being barred from taking photos of public beaches by BP-employed private security, and reports of BP cleanup workers illegally destroying the remains of spill-affected endangered species such as sea turtles.

The greatest effort at masking the true impact of the spill came with the scientifically dubious use of the oil dispersant Corexit. Oil dispersal agents such as Corexit work by breaking up dense clumps of oil and allowing them to dissolve in water, forming an oil sheen. In theory, oil-eating microbes are better able to digest this dissolved oil, but this had never been tested at the temperatures and pressures seen at the Gulf well head. At least 4 million litres of dispersant were used around the gusher to disperse oil before it could reach the surface, with an additional 4 million litres of dispersant used to break up oil at the surface.

Far from being harmlessly eaten or taken away by currents, much of the oil and dispersant remained in the deep areas in a 50 kilometre zone around the spill site. At that depth, most microscopic oil particles remain neutrally buoyant, neither sinking nor floating to the surface. Paul Montagna, a Texas A&M scientist specializing in contamination due to oil spills, remarked, “We can see it. There was a really large plume that stayed mostly in the deepest areas.” Marine scientists on the research vessel Oceanus found a layer of oily material up to 5 centimetres thick coating the entire seafloor and stretching for dozens of kilometres around the site of the well. The vessel took hundreds of samples and in many instances, dead sea creatures were found.

Corexit is notably toxic and carcinogenic, classified by the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) as a hazardous material that induces burning and skin irritation. There have been no toxicological or environmental impact studies performed on the dispersants used so heavily in the “cleanup,” but the WHMIS safety data notes that Corexit “is known to ‘bio-accumulate’.” Bio-accumulation is the process of toxins building up in the organic tissue of animals, which can result in increased concentrations of these toxins at higher levels of the food chain. Preliminary research  conducted at the University of Southern Florida on a mix of dispersant and oil similar to that in the composition of the plumes found that bacteria and phytoplankton are particularly susceptible to their combined toxicological effects. The dispersed oil is composed of droplets that are small enough to be consumed by these microscopic creatures. Bacteria and phytoplankton are the basis for the entire Gulf Coast food chain that includes over 15,000 species, some of which (such as four species of endangered sea turtles) can be found nowhere else in the world.

Tiny blobs of oil have already been found in “almost all” of the larvae of blue crabs collected on beaches from Texas to Florida since last July, according to the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. The value of the blue crab catch alone is worth $39 million to the region, with the total financial loss to the fishery in the Gulf estimated at over $2.5 billion.

The spill has drastically affected the marine mammal population as well. The first birthing season of marine mammals since the spill began this year in February, and instances of dead dolphins appearing on the shores has increased as much as eight times compared to pre-spill levels. Over 100 dolphin, whale and porpoise bodies have appeared on Gulf shores; over half of them were stillborn or immature babies. This number of recovered carcasses is a gross underestimate of the total death toll, and traditional estimates of death rates based on recovered bodies suggest that the true body count may be fifty times higher than we can confirm using those recovered. If this estimate is true, this would mean that over 5,000 marine mammals have already been killed due to the effects of the spill, not even mentioning the effects that the spill would have on the thousands of other species present in the Gulf.

Perhaps most disturbingly, any forensic analysis being performed on the recovered animals is currently the subject of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gag order due to an impending court case against BP. Analysis could provide evidence to link the deaths of the animals to the spill using the oils chemical footprint. Unfortunately, there is a backlog of thousands of samples collected by scientists since the spill that have sat untested at the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS). A letter from the NOAA to the institute says, “Because of the seriousness of the legal case, no data or findings may be released, presented, or discussed.” Even a year after the spill began, no laboratories have been selected to perform these forensic tests that are so important for understanding the impact of oil spills. What this means is that the results of the investigation may not be available to independent scientists for years, and the long term consequences of a deepwater drilling accident may never be known.

The offshore drilling business has continued to surge virtually unabated since the disaster, with BP recording profits of $1.7 billion in the third quarter of 2010 alone, despite the nearly $40 billion spent on the cleanup. The Deepwater Horizon  was just one of nearly 4,000 rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico, and new exploratory deepwater wells have been proposed off the coast of Newfoundland and in the Arctic circle by BP. This exploratory drilling is continuing despite the known lack of remediation technologies in case of disaster, or the existence of proven safety technologies. The reason is clear: the 4 million barrels of oil that have caused so much environmental devastation in the gulf represents about 75 minutes of average daily global oil consumption. Unless society can be weaned off of oil, companies such as BP will haveclear financial motivation to drill ever deeper, endangering lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems in the process.