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BP Oil in the Gulf: Mission Accomplished?

August 8, 2010

Mr. President, please hold the champagne!

Out of Sight Out of Mind? On August 4th President Barack Obama declared “The long battle is finally close to coming to an end, and we are very pleased with that.” His speech marked BP’s sealing of its Deepwater Horizon well. While acknowledging more to be done, the President touted the findings of a report by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) that 75 % of the 5 million barrels of oils spilled into the Gulf have been collected, burned, evaporated, or biodegraded.

Carol Browner the President's Energy Czar with President Obama.

White House energy adviser, Carol Browner, went further, “The vast majority of the oil has now been contained, it’s been skimmed, Mother Nature has done its part, it’s evaporated.” she said.
The head of the federal response effort, retired Coastguard admiral Thad Allen, said “We’ve pretty much made this well not a threat.” Source: Guardian Aug 4.

With BP’s well capped for almost a month and visible oil slicks shrinking, it’s tempting to declare “case closed.” However, as discussed below, many of the nation’s top researchers on marine life and oil contamination have a dissenting view on the fate of the oil and its impact on the Gulf’s marine ecosystem and fisheries.
Dispersants: In order to mitigate the impacts of the spill, BP used more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersant. Dispersants are chemicals which break oil into small droplets allowing oil to disperse and biodegrade.  However, research has shown that dispersants are toxic to marine life, especially in combination with oil. The following diagram is from McClatchy News. Click graphic to see clear version.

Scientists testifying this week before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee questioned the Administration’s decision allowing BP to use massive quantities of dispersant. The administration, however, has steadfastly defended its decision. Some used the “lesser of two evils” line while others touted the benefits of dispersants. EPA’s R&D chief, Paul Anastas told the Senators that “dispersants are generally less toxic than oil; they reduce risks to shorelines, and degrade quickly over several days to weeks” and “mitigate the shoreline impacts on fisheries, nurseries, wetlands and other sensitive environments.”
Dissent: However, a very different view emerged as a panel of independent experts testified. For example, Ronald J. Kendall, Chairman of the Environmental Toxicology Department at Texas Tech University emphasized that BP’s use of more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersants was the first time that dispersants were injected in such large quantities in mile deep water.

Dr. Ronald Kendall Texas Tech University

Dr. Kendall also cited studies showing, “The combination of dispersant and oil in aqueous mixtures appears to be of greater risk to aquatic organisms than dispersant or oil alone. Dispersants enhance the availability of the crude oil and therefore potentially increase uptake of crude oil components into marine organisms.”

Dr. Kendall’s office provided Ekos-squared with an additional quote, ” Dispersants increase the amount of total hydrocarbons in the water column, which in turn increases exposure among a wide variety of species which may result in greater toxicity than either oil or dispersant alone.”

He also noted that EPA’s toxicity studies were limited to short-term exposures of only two species, mysid shrimp and the inland silverside, a small fish found in estuaries. Dr. Kendall emphasized how little was known about the potential impacts of dispersed oil on important species such as bluefin tuna, a species that has experienced a tremendous decline over the past few decades. He noted that critical spawning areas for the tuna are located in the vicinity of BP’s oil releases and potential plumes of dispersed oil and that spring and summer spill period coincides with the tuna’s egg and larval stages. Finally, Kendall expressed his opinion that most of the oil released from BP’s spill has not vanished but remains dispersed in the water column and that scientists have little information on its long-term impact.
Blue crabs in danger? Researchers at Tulane University have found preliminary evidence that oil and dispersant (Corexit) used by BP may be contaminating the larvae of blue crabs. They fear that such contamination could reduce future populations of the crabs. Readers may want to see the Fox 8 (New Orleans) news report and video which includes an interview with the scientists. We will follow this story and include it in future posts.
Oil Industry desperate for dispersants: Make no mistake about it; the oil industry views dispersant use an absolute necessity – especially at a time when the industry is increasingly drilling beyond its experience in increasingly risky environments – i.e. drilling into high pressure / high temperature rock miles below the earth’s crust under thousands of feet of water. Accidents under inevitable, and when they occur, oil companies will depend on dispersants to achieve that result which limits financial and political liability. This means eliminating visible damage to beaches and fisheries in the short run with less regard for the hard to measure long term protection of the marine ecosystem. In essence, out of site and out of mind.
See my comment below (August 9) for another serious downside to dispersant use.

Lift the moratorium? Administration efforts to reassure the public given Republican attempts to paint the Administration’s response as “Obama’s Katrina.” But before the President declares “mission accomplished” and lifts the offshore drilling moratorium, he should heed the advice of independent experts to enable independent scientists to gather the critically needed information on the long term impacts of the spill and dispersants. The Administration should also keep in mind that any attempts to downplay the long-term damage may hamper efforts to collect the full measure of natural resource damages from BP.
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. permalink*
    August 9, 2010 4:04 pm

    Readers should take a look at an important August 2 ProPublica article by Marian Wang. The link is at http:


    The article includes an excerpt from a Rolling Stone article:

    “In the first weeks, BP discovered that dispersants did indeed help break up the oil slicks and drive the oil down into the water. But the chemicals also had another, more disturbing effect: They made the skimmers less effective. The best technology – known as an oleophilic, or oil-attracting, skimmer – uses mops or other absorbent materials to blot the oil out of the water. “Normally, the oleophilic skimmers should have been the backbone of our operation,” says Mark Ploen, BP’s offshore operations section chief at the command center. ‘But with all the dispersants being used, we found that less oil was sticking to the skimmers, and they were far less effective.’ “

  2. August 8, 2010 12:37 pm

    I’m with you, Henry. I have a bad, bad feeling about the consequences of what went down (or came up?) in the Gulf with the dispersants. As I have watched this oil spill unfold, I have felt very guilty about an occasional wish that bubbled up from the depths of my psychological ocean…a wish that BP would not be successful in stopping the gusher until we had a solid decision as a nation to ban offshore drilling.

    I believe I was having these horrible thoughts early on in the disaster because I was afraid that what would happen is just what is happening now with this emerging “mission accomplished” attitude. I’m old enough to have witnessed this kind of repetition many times: Once the fire is out, everybody wants to go back to business as usual, and forget about what got us into trouble in the first place.

    It’s really scary to me to contemplate just how big a disaster humankind will ultimately need to change our collective ways so that we don’t have to endure (or impose on nature) this kind of suffering ever again.

    • Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. permalink*
      August 8, 2010 10:11 pm

      Seabird 7, thanks for your comment. I share your concerns. But I am buoyed by the many things that are going on, especially at the community level.

      Please see posts from this blog on (1) the new farm market in Croom and (2) Jack Stack and his highly successful worker-owned, open-book, management methods for some good examples.

      H. Cole


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