Environment
3:46 pm
Mon December 3, 2012

New Report On BP Oil Spill Says Size of Spills Can Be Determined by "Sniffing" the Air

Today the final three reports in an overview of the scientific community's response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is being released. One of the authors is University of South Florida biologist Steve Murawski, who was the chief scientist for the National Marine Fisheries Service during the disaster.

There's two major items in the reports to the National Academy of Sciences that could out to be game-changers if another spill of this size occurs - not just in the Gulf of Mexico - but anywhere. Murawski says scientists didn't realize it at the time, but they accurately measured just how much oil was spewing into the Gulf - by sniffing the air above. Oil releases volatile organic compounds into the air, much like what you smell when you're pumping gasoline into your car.

Up-close look at BP's stricken wellhead
Up-close look at BP's stricken wellhead

"A really interesting thing was the scientists who gathered that data figured out that they could actually estimate how much oil had come out of the well and got to the surface from what remains in the atmosphere," he says.  "Large portions of that oil evaporated.  And they back-calculated an estimate of the daily flow rate - which was almost bang-on - to the final estimate."

This could be critical in figuring how to battle a spill, because BP consistently wrestled with the federal government over how much oil flowed from its stricken well. The company didn't allow anyone access to their camera mounted on a robot submersible at the wellhead for weeks.  

The difference in the estimates could potentially be worth billions of dollars in fines.

Government scientists "sniffed" the air with a Hurricane Hunter aircraft from California that was temporarily assigned to MacDill Air Force Base. Murawski says it was originally part of a study to determine the effects of the vapors on the health of workers and scientists battling the oil spill.

"I can tell you from now on," he says, "there will be a real-time estimate that is based on it."

Another of the highlights of the reports revolves around the controversial use of dispersants. These chemicals were injected at the wellhead to help break up oil molecules and prevent them from floating to the surface - and onto beaches and marshes. And Murawski says that issue isn't going away in the future.

"I can tell you now in the oil industry, that is the operating model right now for any deep spills will be deep injections of dispersants," Murawski says. "The oil companies are stockpiling massive amounts of Corexit for the eventuality of other deep spills like this, and so it has a tremendous economic importance to resolve this, one way or the other."

Thing is, we still aren't sure how much harm that does to deep-ocean marine life. Even though many coastal marshes were spared from contamination, much of the oil is still hanging in the middle layers of the Gulf or has sunk to the ocean floor, killing bottom dwellers. Also, reports have surfaced of fish and dolphins with strange lesions on their bodies.

"The jury's still out on that was," he says, "in terms of how effective that was an also what the environmental impacts were of very sensitive deepwater animals. And that not has been settled."

In April, three environmental groups sued the EPA and the Coast Guard, claiming the agencies failed to adequately study the chemicals in dispersants, and to know how endangered species will be affected.

And perhaps the most damning of the report's findings is even though billions are being spent on restoration projects  - Murawski says we're still not ready to adequately respond to another huge spill.

"There isn't enough capacity to deal with these sort of things in any one agency - or even a collection of them. This is why it's so important to have more effective mechanisms to incorporate the academic and independent scientists - the industries themselves - into whatever the response efforts is," he says. "And that's one of our take-home points is those mechanisms were not in place at the time to any great extent - nor are they really well built at this point."

So some of Murawski's nine recommendations in the report are aimed at making sure a future spill won't be as disastrous as the last one.

The authors include the current directors of the U.S. Department of Energy; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA; the U.S. Geological Survey; and the National Ocean Service.

In one of the papers—“Science in support of the Deepwater Horizon response”— they suggest future oil spill response preparedness include:

  • Gather adequate environmental baselines for all regions at risk;
  • Develop new technologies for rapid precise reconnaissance and sampling to support a timely and robust response effort;
  • Fill large information gaps regarding biological effects of oil, changing climate, and other simultaneous drivers of variability in coastal and aquatic ecosystems;
  • Require future oil extraction permits be conditional on having mechanisms in place to rapidly assess flow rate; and
  • Conduct research on the impacts of dispersants and dispersants-plus-oil on a wide range of species and life stages.