June 11, 2010

The Oil Spill at Your House

As progress is slowly made in addressing the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, estimates of the uncounted barrels of petroleum that have poured into the ocean from the former Deepwater Horizon well have begun to come in:

Pick a number: 12,600 barrels ... 20,000 ... 21,500 ... 25,000 ... 30,000 ... 40,000 ... 50,000. Scientists put every one of those numbers in play Thursday as they struggled to come up with a solid estimate of how much oil is gushing each day from the black geyser at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

The one scientific certainty: It's a lot - and more than some of the same scientists thought just a couple of weeks ago. It's so much that the crews trying to siphon it to the surface are going to need a bigger boat.

Early in the crisis, BP and the federal government repeatedly said that the
Deepwater Horizon well was spewing about 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day into the gulf. But the new estimates, released Thursday by government-appointed scientists, show that the well most likely produces 5,000 barrels before breakfast.

Meanwhile, British Petroleum - author of the original 5,000-barrel-a-day claim - has doubled down on its questionable credibility by denying there are underwater oil plumes as a result of the spill, despite readings from scientific surveys.  On Wednesday, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said "we haven't found any large concentrations of oil under the sea, and to my knowledge no one has."  University of Georgia oceanographer Samantha Joye disagrees:
Joye's instruments, deployed from a University of Miami research vessel, the Walton Smith, detected both the presence of oil and the depletion of oxygen in very deep water - 900 to 1200 meters below the surface - in a plume five to eight miles away from the leak site. As she explained in an interview: "All of the sensors we have to pick up oil and its various components go crazy in the plume."

Lab results from one of the first research vessels doing subsurface tests found only minor concentrations of oil, but Joye, who is expecting test results back shortly, said her samples will inevitably show more than that. "These stank to high heaven," she said. "They smelled like creosote, asphalt and diesel."

"These plumes are real," she said, "and it's not just oil." Joye, who blogged her research, said she is also very concerned about the concentrations of methane and other gases, such as ethane, propane, butane and pentane, in the water.
What all of this brings into focus is how difficult it is to fully understand the size and impact of this catastrophe.  To get a handle on the magnitude of the damage being done by the BP well, visit If It Was My Home,a new site that uses a Google mashup to allow users to better visualize what the BP oil disaster would look like if it took place where they live.  A snapshot of the area (as of June 11th) covered if the spill took place in Saint Louis is above.  The kindest word for it is "sobering", and it's only going to get worse until a relief well is completed in August.

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