Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Revisiting the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill



The New York Times

March 21, 2011

Revisiting the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill


Until a year ago, the marine scientist Samantha Joye studied a fairly obscure natural phenomenon: the seepage of oil from undersea deposits into deepwater environments. Then, in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon accident, she felt compelled to turn her attention to an unnatural phenomenon: oil spills.

It was her research group that went into the Gulf of Mexico immediately after the spill, in April 2010, and found those famous plumes of oil and natural gas. Now Dr. Joye, 45, of the University of Georgia, directs a team seeking to understand the long-term effects on the chemistry and creatures of the gulf.

We spoke for two hours last month in Washington, where she lectured at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and then again on the telephone last week. An edited version of the two conversations follows:

Q. How did you first learn of the Deepwater Horizon spill?

A. I was at home in Georgia, nursing a back injury. Several of my colleagues, however, were actually near to the explosion. I’m a member of the Gulf of Mexico Hydrates Research Consortium, which studies deepwater environments. As it happened, our group — which includes oceanographers from several regional universities — has a study site only 10 miles north of BP’s Macondo rig.

On the evening of the explosion, April 20, we had people there. When the sun came up the next morning, they saw this huge plume of smoke 10 miles away and also many boats screaming toward the BP rig. Soon, the Coast Guard instructed them to leave the area because it had set up an “off-limits” zone. My colleagues sent out e-mails describing everything they’d witnessed.

Q. How did you feel as you read these messages?

A. Sick to my stomach. From what they reported, and after seeing photographs of the fire in newspapers, I got worried about a blowout. This rig was tapping into a gassy undersea reservoir — it was, in fact, 40 percent gas, which made a blowout a real possibility.

But the Coast Guard was saying everything was fine. At first they claimed there was no leak at all. Then it was a mere 1,000 barrels a day, which was soon revised to 5,000. Scientists I knew who do remote satellite sensing were telling me the spill was at least five to 10 times higher than the reported rates.

As it happened, our group had a long-planned mapping cruise in the gulf scheduled for May 5. I called our project manager and suggested we use the opportunity to retask and gather baseline data on the spill — a time zero.

BP had a lot of ships out there taking measurements. But as far as I could tell, there were no independent academic scientists doing it. Our group would end up going to the gulf five times between May and December, collecting data. The National Science Foundation came through with emergency funding.

Q. And what did you find?

A. Well, I didn’t find. My back was still messed up. I was home for the first cruise, staying close to the ship via the Internet. It was my colleagues Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi and Arne Diercks from University of Mississippi who discovered these oil and gas plumes, which contained about 90 percent methane gas. The rest of it was other gases and a small amount of oil. These underwater plumes were big: 3 to 5 kilometers wide and 10 to 20 kilometers long. Plus, they moved! They traveled at a speed of about three kilometers a day.

Q. What was the significance of finding them?

A. It added a new and unexpected aspect to the blowout. Till then, the official story was that the oil was coming up from the well to the surface where, presumably, it was evaporating and dispersing — either naturally or through chemicals. The possibility of gas wasn’t much discussed. The discovery of the plumes meant a significant aspect of the spill was unrecognized and, to that point, unevaluated.

Q. When did you get to sea?

A. For the second cruise. Late May. The very first thing we did was to locate those plumes. That took two days. They were moving fast. We were chasing an invisible phenomenon that was 1,000 meters below our belts. Not easy to do. Unless you put your instruments down on the right spot, you’re not going to find anything.

However, we did find them. And once we did, we analyzed their chemistry. By tracking them back toward the BP well and testing along the way, we showed they had originated there. The closer you got to the leaking well, the stronger the gas concentrations.

Q. How did the government react to your discovery?

A. They said we were — essentially — nuts. The plumes were denied for a long time. We were essentially accused of exaggerating and being bad scientists because we had talked to the press before publishing a paper.

Q. Aside from the plumes, what did your group find?

A. We were able to document the impact of the leak on the seafloor. In the places we sampled, it was devastating. Often you saw this oily mucus, blanketing everything. There are these bacteria in the sea that eat oil. When their oil-laden waste gets heavy, it falls to the floor. And it must have been falling like a blizzard for months, because it covered the sediment.

Typically, the seafloor is teeming with invertebrates sticking out — little animals with tubes, with shells, anything that filter-feeds. Well, the tubes were still there, but the animals were dead. I suspect they were suffocated when the oily waste rained down on them. The things that could run away, the fish, did. Yet even some of the mobile fauna — when we’d find them — were discolored and slow. Usually you poke a crab and it takes off running. These guys would just sort of sit there and look at you like they were dazed and confused.

Q. How would you characterize the seafloor?

A. A graveyard.

Q. In recent weeks, a large number of dead baby porpoises have been washing up along the gulf shoreline. Do you think these deaths are linked to the oil spill?

A. I am not a marine biologist. But if pregnant dolphins were exposed to oil, their embryos may have been harmed. Alternatively, the pregnant females may have eaten fish that contained oil-derived toxins. Or their food stocks may have been diminished by the spill and there may have been malnutrition causing miscarriages. Given the timing of the blowout and these deaths, it seems reasonable to suspect a link.

Q. Have you been to your old study site?

A. We were there in December. It looked very different. We saw a lot of dead animals, not just invertebrates but sea fans and corals. And there were a lot of exposed mounds of ice crystals of gas on the bottom, and there was a lot of carbonate on the bottom as well. And everything was covered with this layer of brownish slime. Everything. It looked like spider webs in an old house — it didn’t look normal.

The animals weren’t acting normal. Behaviorally, they weren’t doing what they should. There was this one rock that had all these crabs on it. The crabs were just reaching into the air, and they had their claws out. I’d never seen that before. These crabs just didn’t look healthy. They were black instead of orange; they had barnacles all over their body. You’d poke them and they didn’t run away.

Q. Did the Exxon Valdez accident of 1989 give us any information that was helpful?

A. I think we learned a lot. But our memories were short.

There were a lot of things said then — that we were going to develop better technologies for removing oil from the surface. Essentially, when this happened, we were dealing with the same technologies. Nothing changed. It was all the same. So we were really woefully unprepared because we didn’t take that lesson seriously. And I hope we take this lesson seriously.

Q. When you read the news reports last past week from Japan, what were your feelings?

A. It’s odd that you would ask me this — I’ve been thinking about it. No one can prevent earthquakes. That’s up to Mother Nature.

However, building nuclear power plants on an island adjacent to an active tectonic zone is inherently dangerous. Likewise, deepwater drilling into gas-overcharged sediments is dangerous. For me, both of these disasters are a very loud plea for green energy.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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