Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Much Larger Oil Spill, and Underwater Plumes Confirmed

The last few days have seen some developments in the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP claims to be capturing 10,000 barrels of oil per day with the containment cap that it installed on the riser last week. However, video of the riser pipe has shown little discernible reduction in the amount of oil flowing out of the pipe from around the cap. This has led some experts to argue that oil is flowing through the riser at a rate much closer to the 100,000 barrels a day predicted in BP's worst-case scenario than to the 12,000 to 25,000 barrels per day estimated by government scientists.
Leifer said that based on satellite data he's examined, the rate of flow from the well has been increasing over time, especially since BP's "top kill" effort failed last month to stanch the flow. The decision last week to sever the well's damaged riser pipe from the its blowout preventer in order to install a "top hat" containment device has increased the flow still more _ far more, Leifer said, than the 20 percent that BP and the Obama administration predicted....

The oil was not freely flowing before the top kill or before they cut the pipe, Leifer said, but once the riser pipe was cleared, there was little blocking the oil's rise to the top of the blowout preventer. Video images confirm that the flow of black oil is unimpeded.

"If the pipe behaved as a worst-case estimate you would have no visual change in the flow, and I don't see any obvious visual change," Leifer said. "How much larger I don't know but let's just quote BP."
Second, government scientists confirmed that there are subsurface plumes of oil, something that independent researchers had already discovered.
Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said oil in "very low concentrations" was found at varying depths 40 miles and 42 nautical miles northeast of the well and also 142 nautical miles southeast of the well....

Dispersed oil "is not in a form that's easily removed," said Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia at Athens during a briefing she held on Tuesday about her latest research cruise in search of submerged oil.

Joye was one of the first scientists to discover submerged layers of oil, reports of which Lubchenco attacked in mid May as "misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate."
The full extent and ecological effects of the oil plumes are not clear yet, but it will certainly have some effect on marine life.
In her separate conference call with reporters, Joye said that on her most recent research mission, a two-week cruise on the vessel F.G. Walton Smith that ended on Sunday, her team found a plume of oil from the leaking well that was about 15 miles long and three miles wide. Its thickness ranged from 600 feet close to the well to 1,600 feet farther out.

Joye said the researchers found unusually high levels of methane in the water. The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig burst into flame on April 20 when a jet of methane exploded up the well's pipe and enveloped the rig.

Joye said the presence of so much oil and methane is depleting oxygen in the water, and that the amount of methane in the water increased after BP engineers severed the well's twisted riser pipe last week to fit a "top hat" containment device over it....

"We have no clue what these dispersants do to phytoplankton, to microorganisms," Joye said. "We know that they are toxic to many larvae. It's impossible I think to know what the impacts are going to be and what the repercussions for various fisheries are going to be."
Meanwhile, BP continues to deny the presence of large underwater oil plumes.

Regarding the ecological consequences, see this interview with a marine scientist who studies pollution in mollusks.

BP plans to donate profits from the oil captured in the containment cap to a wildlife restoration fund. Once royalties and other fees are subtracted, that could amount to $582,470 per day.