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Apr 082013

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

As ugly pictures of the grimy, tarry aftermath of the oil spill in Arkansas continue to emerge, ExxonMobil is calling “time out” on some of the media coverage.

The oil giant says the spill has wrongly been portrayed as involving tar sands oil or diluted bitumen. In a blog entitled Five Lies They’re Telling You About the Mayflower Pipeline Spill, Exxon says that the oil was not from tar sands but conventionally drilled Canadian oil.

“. . . The crude that spilled is Wabasca heavy oil and it’s from Alberta near the area where there is oil sands [tar sands] production. It’s produced by conventional production methods – in other words by drilling a well into the ground through which the oil flows – and diluted by a light oil to help it flow through the pipeline.”
Tar Sands Mayflower AR 2 ... EPA
If that’s the case, the media spin-up over this spill has gone over the top. Many groups are citing the Mayflower, AR, spill as an example of how dangerous it is to transport tar sands oil, because it is mixed with many chemicals and will corrode pipelines. If the oil had been tar sands, then the Mayflower spill would be an example of the risks posed by this type of fuel; raising questions about the safety of the controversial Keystone XL, which is under construction in Texas but still awaiting permits for northern legs that would complete the 1,700 mile pipeline from the tar sands region of Alberta to Houston.

So was it tars sands or diluted conventional oil that spilled in Arkansas? Let’s guess that Exxon knows its oil, and that it was heavy crude or “regular” oil.

Also a check of an EPA report from the weekend of the spill, corroborates Exxon’s point, referring to the oil as “Wabasca Heavy Crude.”

This heavy oil comes from Alberta, near where tar sands oil is mined, but it’s not tar sands oil.

I’m wondering how the word got started that the spill involved tar sands. Reporters who’re asking that question say  that officials initially referred to the oil as “dilbit,” which stands for diluted bitumen. Bitumen is the tarry, thick oil  that’s literally scraped from the earth in tar sands extraction. It is then diluted with chemicals so it’s more fluid and can be transported. Hence dil-bit.

Pipeline Network Map

Existing and planned oil pipelines.

The fact that the Keystone pipeline is much on the minds of climate activists also may have hastened a rush to judgment. Someone said dilbit, and pretty soon, in the absence of anyone correcting them, the Arkansas spill was placed in the tar sands disaster column. And the error was repeated as the blogs tumbled across social media. Even on this site, we referred to the spill as involving diluted bitumen after checking normally authoritative sources. Turns out these sources didn’t really know. We regret the misinformation.

Dil-bit or not, though, the Arkansas spill still stands as an example of what can happen when oil pipelines fail near populated areas. This event was too close for human comfort. As we look at the pipelines increasingly zigzagging the nation, it seems obvious that the joules in/joules out equation is changing. Fossil fuels are costing more and more to extract and convey; taking a toll on the land and water, while simultaneously setting us up for a fall when the oil runs out.

Tar Sands  - Nutria dead - Mayflower Spill -- Tar Sands Blockade photo

An “oiled” nutria, a small swamp mammal, killed in the Mayflower spill. (Photo: Tar Sands Blockade)

We’re playing an endgame without a good B plan, even though the technology to lift us out of the mire is available today in the form of solar panels, wind turbines and smart building. (Yes, it’s pretty much that simple; with a little more technology needed to bring the transportation sector up to speed.)

Mayflower, where we discovered what an oil spill looks like when we are the life forms caught in the mess, probably won’t be the only little neighborhood to win its own Wikipedia page as collateral damage in the oil endgame.

Let’s just hope that next time it’s not the Ogallala Aquifer that gets splattered with crude.

Copyright © 2013 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Apr 012013

Several homeowners in a Little Rock suburb were evacuated over the weekend  after a pipeline spilled an estimated 2,000 barrels (84,000 gallons) of tar sands bitumen in their neighborhood.

The oil, which is much heavier and more corrosive than regular crude, puddled in the streets and flowed along the gutters to a drainage ditch leading to Lake Conway. But booms and emergency clean up crews were able to contain the spill from contaminating the recreational lake.

Mayflower Arkansas bitumen oil spill Easter 2013

Mayflower, AK, bitumen oil spill Easter weekend 2013, (Photo: KARK-TV)

The spill left a sticky residue and emitted a strong odor in the subdivision in Mayflower. Clean up by pipeline owner ExxonMobil is continuing; EPA officials say they’ll determine when it’s safe to allow homeowners to return.

Last week, a train derailment in Minnesota led to a similar tar sands oil spill of an estimated 26,000 gallons. Thanks to frozen ground, that spill did not threaten waterways and clean up was expected to be easier as a result.

Trains are used to transport oil because pipelines aren’t always available.

Experts worry that tar sands oil spills will become commonplace in the US as oil companies rush tar sands oil from Canada — which is heated and more corrosive than regular crude — onto existing pipelines ill-equipped to handle it. (The Natural Resources Defense Council has posted on blog on the risks from stressed pipeline infrastructure.)

The pipeline that ruptured outside of Little Rock dated to the 1940s.

Tar sands spill in Mayflower ARK, KARK-TV image

Oil spill in Mayflower, AR. (Photo: KARK-TV)

Apr 202011

From Green Right Now Reports

Environmentalists marking the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill remain angry that oil companies drilling in deep waters continue to operate with little accountability while enjoying record profits.

The BP oil spill soiled 1,000 miles of shoreline, from delicate marshlands in Louisiana to white sand tourist beaches in Florida.

“One year after the catastrophic BP Disaster killed eleven men, spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic oil into the Gulf of Mexico and ruined the livelihoods and health of thousands of working families in the Gulf, not much has changed for Big Oil,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a statement. “Oil executives and their lobbyists are raking in millions in bonuses for their ‘best year ever’ and lobbying Congress to open more of our land and water – even the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – for risky and dangerous drilling.”

Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig platform involved in the 2010 oil spill, recently handed out bonuses to its executives for having their “best year ever” of safe operations. The company later apologized for the “insensitive” wording on the proxy statement, though not the bonuses. Transocean’s CEO, who got a $200,000 raise for 2011, also got a $374,000 bonus.

The Deepwater Horizon rig, leased by BP, exploded in a burst of flames April 20, 2010, when the pressure from a wellhead overwhelmed safety valves. Eleven crew members were killed and 17 injured in what would turn out to be the biggest inadvertent oil spill ever.

Oil streamed from the broken wellhead deep below the surface and about 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, pouring 5 million barrels of crude oil into the ocean before the break was capped on July 15, 2010.

The National Wildlife Federation calls today, one year later, the “anniversary we’re not celebrating,” because so much still needs to be addressed. The cleanup of the vast affected shoreline is incomplete, and while BP has been billed for the disaster, oversight and safety measures for oil drilling have not been tightened. (See the NWF oil spill website for more about volunteer clean ups at beaches and marshes, and info about affected marine life, like dolphins and sea turtles.)

Oil profits soar, supported by tax breaks

Environmental groups, and scores of gulf residents whose livelihood was gut-punched by the spill, remain incensed by the environmental gaffe — BP had little in the way of emergency spill plans — as well as what they see as a mediocre recovery response by the oil company and the U.S. government. Though the U.S. committed more than 47,000 staff from more than a dozen agencies at the height of the response and initial gulf clean up, some residents and environmental groups complain that the tail end effort is too little.

The government has responded with reports about clean beaches, returning tourists and videos showing populated, debris-free beaches, like this one at Pensacola.

Few argue that the U.S. effort was anything other than earnest. But they worry that the region, still struggling with flagging tourism, shredded marsh lands and questions about the safety of the seafood, is facing dwindling attention.  It is hard, residents say, to recover from the triple whammy of the general economic downturn, followed by the loss of business during the oil spill and now the continued blight of the gulf ecosystem. (Hear their stories at the NRDC’s Stories from the Gulf online video project.)

Scientists say it could be decades, before the region’s delicate ecology recovers.

Gulf coast fears are not assuaged by BP’s return to business-as-usual, rejoining other big oil companies that continue to sustain record profits buoyed by large tax breaks, while the rest of the nation suffers under budget cuts and stagnant employment.

Earlier this year, Congressman Edward J. Markey’s (D-Mass.) office pinned a number on the malaise. Arguing that oil companies no longer need billions in tax breaks from American workers, Markey reported that the top five multinational oil companies have made $1 trillion in profits in the past decade.

BP seemed to suffer only a brief financial hiccup after the Gulf oil spill. It returned to profitability in the third quarter of 2010, and to paying dividends early in 2011, effectively covering all the costs of the largest oil spill in history in less than a year. The company may have restored it’s image with stockholders, but the public remains skeptical. The readers of The Consumerist blog recently voted it the Worst Company in America, by a slight margin over financial, heavyweight villian, Bank of America.

While BP and fellow oil companies continue business as usual, drilling in deep ocean waters and planning expansions into delicate arctic regions, environmental advocates say green energy alternatives remain dangerously underfunded.

U.S. lawmakers steeped in oil, ignoring clean alternatives

“The only way to truly protect our communities and our oceans is to end Big Oil’s stranglehold on our economy and break our addiction to oil. Instead of chasing dirty, dead-end fossil fuels, we should be investing in 21st Century transportation solutions like smarter, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, electric vehicles and mass transit,” Brune said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Peter Lehner also argues that the only sane response to such a monumental fossil fuel disaster would be to turn quickly toward clean energy solutions.

The gulf spill “oiled more than 1,000 miles of coastline and created a slick the size of South Carolina,” Lehner notes in his blog “The Only Real Response to the BP Disaster: Reduce Our Oil Dependence“. “It also cost fishermen $62 million in lost sales and more than $1.5 billion in lost tourism revenue to date.”

But the rich oil and gas lobby, spends billions – $168 million in 2009 alone — to stop Congress from supporting the alternative fuels and efficient cars that could ease the American oil addiction, Lehner argues.

And even though the National Commission on the BP Spill blamed human error and a lack of safety precautions for the BP spill, Congress has not passed one law as a result of the accident, he notes, yet it is considering bills to extend deep water drilling.

Brune also noted a lack of action in Washington on the commission’s recommendations, which include urging the oil industry to adopt a new “culture of safety” and the government to put more money toward oversight by agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Bills pending in Congress would help corral money for continued gulf restoration, by making sure that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines against BP are returned to the region instead of being put into the general budget. The Restore the Gulf Coast Act sets forth formulas to assure that the fines would be shared and fairly distributed among the five affected gulf coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.

The act would require the governor of each state, in consultation with the appropriate agencies, to allocate the money to “restore, protect, and make sustainable use of the natural resources, ecosystems, fisheries, marine habitats, coastal wetlands, and economy in his State.” (Or “her” state, should that be the case.) Senators Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) and David Vitter (R-La.) have introduced the act in the Senate; a similar bill is in the House.

Oct 272010

From Green Right Now Reports

With the elections nearing, fall weather setting in and the holidays soon to follow, that BP oil spill horror is receding in the public’s rear view mirror.

Billy Maher, a Louisiana DWF biologist releases one of 32 rescued sea turtles 50 miles south of Grand Isle, La., Oct. 21 (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Simpson.)

But the U.S. government remains doggedly committed to the clean-up, according to Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, who updated a handful of reporters today.

Here’s the scoop, by the numbers.

  • 11,200 people remain engaged in the oil spill response across the Gulf of Mexico. That’s down a lot compared to the 48,000 who responded at the peak of the disaster, but remains more than those who worked recovery at the peak of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
  • 577 miles of oiled shoreline continues to be scrutinized for clean up, and is the subject of clean ups. Few beaches are contaminated with heavy oil, but tar balls do roll in and some surface during high winds. Beaches all along the Gulf crescent, from Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle continue to see some erosion and surfacing of oil, as well as some collection of tarballs.
  • 1,800 people are working to clean up Mississippi’s Barrier Islands, weather permitting.
  • 7,000 square miles of federal waters were recently re-opened to fishing.
  • 9,000 square miles of federal waters remain closed to fishing. At the peak of the disaster, 88,000 square miles were closed to fishing activities.
  • 12 vessels continue to sample the closed waters
  • 420 “sentinel snares” are looking for oil contamination in difficult to reach, delicate tidal areas. Sampling continues beneath the sea, as well, looking for sediment in the water columns.
  • 37 days — the time since the last significant oil was found in waters near shore.

The latest major siting of what appeared to be a possible remnant oil patch is likely a “historic” algal bloom in an area where the Mississippi dumps water filled with fertilizer run off into the Gulf of Mexico.

The remaining trio of vessels that remain at the plugged oil well site are working on “plug and abandonment” activities related to securing equipment and cleaning the hulls of the ships, Zukunft said.

Jul 082010

From Green Right Now Reports

You’ve probably encountered those “Don’t Feed the Bears” signs in national parks. Well, it’s true of dolphins also.

NOAA has put out notice that the public should not feed, corral, swim or approach dolphins in the gulf, even if they appear distressed from possible exposure to the oil spill.

But residents concerned about suffering or stranded dolphins should call in about them on the federal government’s wildlife hotline at 866-557-1401.

While they wait for a response team, they can and should:

  • Stay with the animal until rescuers arrive, but use caution. Keep a safe distance from the head and tail.
  • Keep crowds away and noise levels down to avoid causing further stress to the animal.
  • Keep dogs and other pets away from live or dead marine mammals.

Untrained members of the public should NOT:

  • Push the animal back out to sea – this delays examination and treatment, and often results in the animal re-stranding itself in worse condition.
  • Approach, feed, or swim with the animal. (These are wild animals.)
  • Collect any parts from dead marine mammals. This is prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“Any attempt to capture, move, lead, or scare groups of dolphins out of an area would do more harm than good,” said Laura Engleby, marine mammal biologist for NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “Moving or relocating dolphins could reduce the chance of survival and stress that may place the animals at greater risk of injury or death.”

And as with the park bears, dolphins should not be viewed as pets or proxy pets. Trying to protect them in bays or secluded areas and feeding them could be harmful in the long run, hurting their instincts to hunt and survive, according to a dolphin protocol report put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency reports that it has fielded many calls from concerned citizens wanting to help the coastal bottlenose dolphins and it will send a response team to determine if a dolphin needs rescuing or is best left in the environment.

NOAA, which has scientists studying the effects of the oil spill on dolphins, also warns that dolphins can exhibit behavior that could be misinterpreted as distress signs:  “Natural behaviors include resting, loud exhalations at the water surface (which sounds like a chuff) or feeding.   For example, dolphins have many strategies to catch fish, such as “strand “or “mud” feeding where the dolphins herd fish into shallow areas to feed. This behavior can seem alarming to watch if people are not familiar with it since the dolphins often work in very shallow water and actually beach themselves as they chase fish onto shore.”

  • NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Visit us at http://www.noaa.gov or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/usnoaagov.

Jul 072010

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

There are more than 1,600 sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists are in search of them to test for the oil spill's impact. Photo courtesy NOAA.

An unprecedented gathering of marine mammal scientists and researchers, armed with the latest high-tech equipment, set to sea late last week to begin the first step in a multi-year study of the BP oil spill’s impact on whales and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a matter of fact, this month-long mission would not have left port were it not for the fact that another research trip had already been planned for the 244-foot Gordon Gunther.

“This takes time to pull together. We were fortunate that we had academic partners come along and add some excellent capabilities. We moved rapidly to get people and equipment into place,” Lance Garrison said. Garrison is a fisheries biologist and the principal investigator for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Gordon Gunther is among NOAA’s fleet of research ships

There are 21 species of marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico, including endangered sperm whales and a small pod of Bryde’s whales. The 15 scientists on the ship (and a crew of almost 30) will collect small tissue samples from live whales and dolphins and attach satellite tags to an estimated two dozen sperm whales near the spill.

With them is an array of listening equipment from underwater microphones towed by the ship to compact, complex devices that sit on the ocean floor for months and measure the various clicks, long moans and whistles made by whales and dolphins as they move about, communicate and locate prey.

This level of research has not been conducted in the Gulf of Mexico before. Marine research expeditions in 2002 and 2005, when whales were tagged with electronic devices, has provided this group with baseline information about marine mammal populations and habitats.

Researchers already know that oiled ocean waters can be lethal to whales. Orcas that lived in the waters fouled by the Exxon Valdez spill more than 20 years ago died, and their numbers have still not increased to pre-spill populations.

The NOAA ship Gordon Gunter is carrying an elite group of marine mammal researchers and the latest in whale-detecting technology. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

Unlike the highly visible oiled birds found along the gulf coastline, the deep-sea marine mammals are only found far offshore.

Could some dolphins and whales already be dead?

In mid-June, a NOAA ship found a dead 25-foot sperm whale floating 150 miles south of Mississippi, and 77 miles from the spill. The cause of death has not yet been determined. There have been more dolphins: 56 found stranded from April 30 to July 2 in the spill area. Of those, five were alive, but three died. There was oil on several of the dolphins, but their cause of death is still unknown.

There’s no way to know about others, Garrison thinks. “Dead whales or dolphins may float on the ocean’s surface for a few days, but then likely sink.” he said.

That’s why this multi-faceted effort is so important. Without direct knowledge of deaths that may have already occurred, these marine researchers counting cetaceans — trying to determine their movement, feeding and habitats – will provide invaluable information on how the oil spill could impact their numbers for years to come.

“They’re going to be working along the Continental Shelf break, placing (ocean floor) buoys from 1,000 meters (.6 of a mile) to 3,000 meters (nearly 2 miles) deep, 50 to 150 miles offshore, from the Texas border to the Florida panhandle and just north of the Dry Tortugas,” said Garrison, who works at NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center.

Researchers from Cornell University, Oregon State University and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are on the ship, along with NOAA scientists.

About two dozen of Cornell’s ocean-floor recording units will be deployed over a large area of the gulf, recording the sounds of sperm and Bryde’s whales and other cetaceans for the next four months.

Newer devices – High Frequency Acoustic Recording Packages, or HARPS – from the University of California’s Scripps Institution, until now have only been used in Pacific waters off California. These devices record both low frequencies of deep-water whales and higher-frequency sounds of dolphins and beaked whales.

A small pod of Bryde's whales live in the gulf in a remote area. (Photo by Isabel Beasley, courtesy NOAA)

The HARPS accumulate much more information. “After they are retrieved, the information is run through computer algorithms to identify the types of noises and correlate changes to seasonal movements as well as changes in the oil in the water. We will know if the animals move to avoid an oiled area,” Garrison said.

Small samples of whale and dolphin tissue – about 7 to 10 millimeters, less than the width of a dime and about 2 inches deep — are taken when whales are spotted. “We go out on a small boat with a modified air rifle that has a dart – the tip of the dart is very small. There are little hooks inside the tip that pull out a little skin and blubber as the dart rebounds,” Garrison said. Chemical analysis, for everything from genetics to pollutant exposure, begins when the ship returns in early August. Those first results will take three to six months.

Samples of some of the whales’ prey, such as deepwater squid, which could introduce toxic chemicals to the whales, also will eventually be tested for contaminants. On this trip, acoustics will determine the amount of fish, squid and plankton in the deep waters, as well as testing of the water itself.

“One of the things that has been difficult about some of this work is there aren’t necessarily good chemical metrics about impacts of this oil spill – that’s the subject of debate at the moment.

“We’re intentionally at an early stage in the process. What we would expect to see over time is perhaps an accumulation of things in tissues and we want to be in a position to track those changes. This is the first data point in a long series,” he said. The scientists will examine whales and dolphins over months and years, looking for direct oil exposure or by consuming prey contaminated by oil.

The Bryde’s whales are not endangered, but they are an anomaly in the Gulf of Mexico. There may be less than 30 in the single pod. They are baleen whales and are unusual because they stay in the same general, isolated area of the gulf. There are an estimated 1,665 sperm whales in the gulf, and they often travel long distances. Researchers will track them to determine if they are moving away from oiled waters.

If there is a massive die-off of whales and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, this and future research trips will document that, because of the information being gathered today. Reproduction levels may drop, or gradual but persistent changes could occur if their food chain is made toxic.

It will take years of research trips to learn what the BP oil spill will do to these whales and dolphins. “It will have to go on for a long time,” Garrison said.

Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Jun 292010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

In a symbolic but moving gesture, the Hands Across the Sands oil drilling protest on Saturday brought out people from Miami to Melbourne to stand in solidarity for clean beaches, and against more offshore oil drilling.

There were events around the world, but the turnout was especially heavy in the U.S., spanning the nation from High Line Park in New York City and Nags Head in North Carolina in the East, to Puget Sound and Los Angeles and several beaches in between on the West Coast. People lined up in Anchorage and Maui.

But Floridians, where Hands began last year, and other Gulf Coasters took the lead, turning out in force on shores threatened by BP’s out-sized, oozing and seemingly unstoppable oopsie.

Many photos document this touching turnout on the Sands’ Facebook page. We’ve brought you a few selected shots:

The message is clear here on this Pinellas County beach in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area

Nothing quite says “Don’t Drill Our Beaches” like “Don’t Drill Our Beaches.” In Pinellas County they’ve got some beautiful white sand in the way of that oil slick in the gulf, and the message was clear.

Jun 242010

(This essay was published by Post Carbon Institute on June 1, 2010 under the headline, The End Is Nigh – Deepwater Horizon and the Technology, Economics, and Environmental Impacts of Resource Depletion. The author, Richard Heinberg, is a Post Carbon Institute fellow and acclaimed “Peak Oil” scholar. He wrote The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies in 2003, and several subsequent books.)

By Richard Heinberg

Runaway trainFollowing the failure of the latest efforts to plug the gushing leak from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, and amid warnings that oil could continue to flow for another two months or more, perhaps it’s a good time to step back a moment mentally and look at the bigger picture—the context of our human history of resource extraction—to see how current events reveal deeper trends that will have even greater and longer-lasting significance.

Much of what follows may seem obvious to some readers, pedantic to others. But very few people seem to have much of a grasp of the basic technological, economic, and environmental issues that arise as resource extraction proceeds, and as a society adapts to depletion of its resource base. So, at the risk of boring the daylights out of those already familiar with the history of extractive industries, here follows a spotlighting of relevant issues, with the events in the Gulf of Mexico ever-present in the wings and poised to take center stage as the subject of some later comments. Readers in the “already familiar” category can skip straight to part 5.

1. The Pyramid Scheme

Perhaps it’s best to start with the most familiar metaphor: resource extraction always proceeds on the basis of the low-hanging fruit principle. We typically go after the most easily accessible, highest quality portions of the resource first, and save the hard-to-get, low-quality portions for later.

Geologists use a different metaphor; they commonly speak of a “resource pyramid.” The capstone represents the easily and cheaply extracted portion of the resource; the next layers are portions of the resource base that can be extracted with more difficulty and expense, and often with worse environmental impacts; while the remaining bulk of the pyramid represents resources that geologists believe are unlikely to be extracted under any realistic pricing scenario, usually because of depth, location, or quality issues. There’s a pyramid for oil, one for coal, one for iron ore, and so on.

As we chew our way down the layers of each pyramid, starting at the top, some fairly predictable things happen with regard to technology, economics, and environmental impacts. These effects are often mutually interacting, and I will try to highlight those mutual interactions as we go.

2. Technology

Some resources can be extracted, at least in initial stages, with very simple tools. Primitive mining was accomplished with stone and wooden picks and shovels, using reed baskets to carry ore (usually copper, gold, or silver) to nearby sites where it could be smelted in charcoal fires. Once copper, tin, and iron had been smelted in sufficient quantities, metal tools began to be used in mining.

Early coal mining consisted simply of digging lumps from surface outcrops, but by the 18th century British miners were working in shafts over 300 feet deep.

Many very early oil wells consisted of shallow pits (up to 100 ft deep) dug into natural seeps; the earliest known drilling for oil occurred in China in the fourth century, achieving depths of up to about 800 feet using bits attached to bamboo poles. As petroleum became a heavily traded commodity in the early 20th century, rotary drills using steel pipes and bits were developed, able to penetrate to depths of thousands of feet.

The patterns are clear and unsurprising: As resources near the Earth’s surface become depleted, we have to work harder and dig deeper to extract more of what we want and have come to need. Production problems lead to the development of new extractive technologies—which, in solving those problems, often also make more of the resource accessible. As a larger portion of the resource base becomes available to society, more uses for the resource are discovered. The new technologies themselves (starting with metal tools) also frequently wind up having other purposes—ones that may increase demand for the resource they were developed to extract.

There is no more significant or instructive example of these trends than the story of the steam engine—which was invented to pump water out of deepening coal mines, but (when applied to other ends, such as providing the motive power for railroads) became a prime user of coal. Tellingly, iron rails were also first used in coalmines. And thus, of course, began the Industrial Revolution.

Fast-forward to deepwater drilling rigs, satellite and seismic geological surveys, horizontal drilling, fracking, and Blowout Preventers (BOPs) for finding and extracting oil (and unconventional natural gas); Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) technology for obtaining oil from tar sands; long-wall mining, Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), and Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) in the coal industry; and so much more. Each extractive industry boasts its own fleet of cutting-edge technologies, each consisting of a suite of tool systems all working together to make the production of some fuel or ore cheaper or more environmentally benign.

The 21st-century search for useful non-renewable resources is testing the limits of science; and both the brawn and the intricacy of machines that have been developed to feed our growing human needs for nonrenewable resources are truly impressive. Watching some of these machines in action, it is tempting to think that human ingenuity has no bounds. Moreover, since we are still fairly close to the top of the pyramid with regard to many nonrenewable resources, it is also natural to assume that constantly improving machines will enable us to dig very far down indeed, so as to continue supplying our burgeoning collective appetite for energy and minerals for many generations to come.

However, as we are about to see, the development of extractive technologies also involves tradeoffs and limits.

3. Economics

Fancy extraction technology comes at a price. But investment in more expensive tools is often justified by greater efficiency of production, reduced environmental impacts, or by the ability to open more of the resource base to exploitation. The relationship between cost and payoff is captured to some extent by the simple ratio of Return on Investment (ROI), to which every drilling or mining company’s bean counters pay vigilant attention. This ratio can easily go sour in situations where the resource isn’t present in sufficient quantities (even using the newest oil exploration techniques, two out of three initial wells—each costing tens to hundreds of millions of dollars—still comes up dry) or where environmental problems get out of hand (note to self: at end of fiscal year, remember to review BP’s balance sheet for Gulf of Mexico operations).

But financial ROI is not the only return on investment that matters. If we’re discussing energy resources (oil, gas, or coal) then we also have to keep track of the ratio between the energy invested in exploration and production versus the energy yielded by the resources extracted. This is commonly termed Energy Return on Energy Invested, or EROEI. Technology uses energy, and bigger and more complicated machines usually use more of it. Moreover, the mining and refining of deeper or lower-grade fossil fuels generally takes more energy regardless of what technology is used. When the amount of energy required to produce a given quantity of fuel equals the amount of energy obtained from burning it, that fuel ceases to be a net energy source. There may be financial reasons to continue the production process (including government subsidies or tax write-offs), but from an energetic standpoint the exercise has become pointless. The EROEI for fossil fuels is declining for all the above reasons.

Since each layer further down the resource pyramid requires more expensive extractive machinery, while yielding lower-quality or more expensively produced fuels or ores, one would expect that the market price for resources would continually be rising. But this has not been the case in most instances—until recently. During the 20th century, most commodity prices (including prices for metal ores and, often, fossil fuels) actually declined in inflation-adjusted terms. Why? More areas for exploration were continually being opened, while payoffs from the ability of new technology to access lower layers of the resource pyramid trumped both the extra cost of the technology itself and the declining resource quality (a factor that must be overcome with increasing investment in refining or ore upgrading).

Over the past few years, that situation has begun to change. A study, “Increasing Global Nonrenewable Natural Resource Scarcity,” by Chris Clugston tracks the production levels and price of 57 Non-renewable Natural Resources (NNRs). Clugston begins by pointing out that

During the 20th century, global production levels associated with 56 of the 57 analyzed NNRs (98%) increased annually, while global price levels associated with 45 of the 57 analyzed NNRs (79%) decreased annually. Generally increasing global NNR production levels in conjunction with generally decreasing global NNR price levels indicate relative global NNR abundance during the 20th century. On the whole, global NNR supplies kept pace with ever-increasing global demand during the 20th century.

So far, so good. But that’s changing.

Generally slowing or declining global NNR production growth in conjunction with generally increasing global NNR prices indicate increasing NNR scarcity during the early years of the 21st century… Annual global production levels increased during the 20th century, then decreased during the 21st century; while annual price levels decreased during the 20th century, then increased during the 21st century…

Case in point: for petroleum, between the years 2000 and 2010 production increased 9 percent, while prices rose by almost 400 percent. No, we’re not “running out” of oil, but we are running out of cheap oil. Clugston echoes this conclusion more generally: “We are not about to ‘run out’ of any NNR; we are about to run ‘critically short’ of many.”

Something else we learn from petroleum: as production expands and high-quality deposits deplete, continually higher prices do not represent the full extent of the problems that arise. At some point, regardless of price, production reaches a maximum rate and begins to decline (this, of course, is what the whole “Peak Oil” discussion is all about). This “peaking” phenomenon has occurred with regard to the extraction of many different resources, and in many places and times, so its dynamics are now the subject of fairly sophisticated study.

Standard economic theory holds that, as a resource becomes scarce, potential buyers will bid prices upward; and as prices escalate, increasing numbers of users will turn to substitutes. It’s easy to point to historic examples where these things happened, but there have also been instances where prices responded in a highly non-linear fashion (more on that below), and where substitutes were unavailable or inadequate. In the case of fossil fuels, substitutes do exist; however, most have drawbacks of one kind or another (see Searching for a Miracle) and the scale of current global fossil fuel usage makes a full transition to substitutes a truly daunting prospect.

It is important to know whether commodity prices escalate linearly as petroleum and other non-renewable resources become scarcer. If they do, then the invisible hand of the market will solve many of the problems that scarcity brings: in addition to making substitutes more attractive, higher prices will motivate efforts to increase efficient usage of the resource. But a recent historic example calls such rosy scenarios for painless, market-led resource transitions into question. In the years and months leading up to July 2008, demand for oil was increasing, but global production remained stagnant. Traders bid the price up to a record $147 per barrel—and global financial mayhem followed. While a concurrent derivatives/real estate crash was responsible for much of the bloodshed, dramatic slumps in the auto, airline, trucking, and shipping industries seemed closely tied to the oil price spike. These (along with the general economic convulsion) resulted in declining fuel demand, which in turn caused petroleum prices to plummet nearly to $30 per barrel in December 2008. This then led to curtailed investment in oil exploration—which, in due course, will provoke another rapid price rise as supplies dwindle. The cycle will presumably begin again; and each time it recurs, it will likely have an even more devastating economic impact. Not all non-renewable resources will provoke similar scenarios as they deplete, as very few are so essential to the economy that scarcity or price spikes could trigger a major recession. However, price volatility does seem to be a typical sign of depletion-led resource scarcity.

Finally, perhaps the most significant economic factor with regard to the extraction of nonrenewable resources is growth. Modern economies depend on growth in provision of goods and services; meanwhile, world population continues to expand. As we make our way down the down the pyramid, increasing appetites (growing population times growing per capita consumption rates) translate to increasing dependence on depleting resources. If total consumption rates were declining or even constant, the economic and environmental problems stemming from resource depletion would be easier to solve. Growth makes all such problems more intractable with every passing year.

4. Environmental Impacts

In many respects, advancing technology tends to reduce the environmental impact of each increment of resource extraction (though there are exceptions!).

Underground coal mining in the early days—only a few decades ago—was far more dangerous, dirty, and dreary than it is today, though mine disasters still occur (as we sadly discovered just a few weeks ago in West Virginia) and miners still die from pneumoconiosis.

Similarly, the oil business in the early 20th century lacked regulations and safety technology, and resulted in more frequent oil spills and fatal accidents than does today’s high-tech industry. The first successful exploratory oil wells nearly always produced gushers because there was little to prevent pressurized oil from shooting out the top of the drill pipe once reservoir contact was made. These days, gushers are extremely rare due to modern oil well pressure control systems.

In the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, we see on display all the most advanced technology for drilling safety and spill cleanup. Blowout preventers, pressure monitors, careful planning, regulations, and advanced engineering combine to make accidents rare. If something does go wrong, there are remote-controlled underwater vehicles, top kills, and junk shots to seal off the leaks, and oil booms and chemical dispersants to deal with the spill itself.

And yet, despite all this technology and expertise, we are still witness to one of the worst environmental disasters in history. Why?

As we are still learning, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was due largely to gross negligence on part of several companies, primarily BP, and also to the approval of a flawed drilling plan by the Federal Government’s Minerals Management Service (MMS). Such lapses are to be anticipated. In a deepwater drilling operation with a budget running upwards of a hundred million dollars, every minute costs money, so there are strong incentives to cut costs. Often, engineers (who may be more concerned about safety) are overruled by management (who are more concerned about budgets and ROI). Then there is the phenomenon—common throughout government—of regulators being figuratively (or literally) in bed with industries they are supposed to be regulating. So in March 2009, when BP filed a plan with the MMS, repeatedly asserting that it was “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities,” so unlikely in fact that “a blowout scenario… is not required for the operations proposed,” the regulators simply took the company at its word.

In the bigger scheme of things, an event such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion becomes more likely with every passing year, despite the continuing development of superior technology: as oil production levels grow to meet rising demand, and as the industry is forced to drill deeper in ever more hostile environments, there are more things to go wrong; and when problems happen, they are harder to fix.

While the world’s attention is appropriately riveted on the consequences of the Macondo blowout, it is important to remember the ongoing, routine environmental devastation that comprises the background static of contemporary industrial life: climate chaos, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. In many instances of resource extraction—including “mountaintop removal” coal mining and tar sands oil production—massive environmental destruction is the result not of unforeseen accidents, but of normal operations.

With the convergence of climate change and “clean coal” technology we see the culmination of many of the trends discussed here. Climate change is an environmental consequence of nonrenewable resource usage, and one that is so horrendous it will stop civilization in its tracks. Therefore something must be done to stop it. Several key industrial nations can’t afford to give up coal, the highest-carbon fuel, because their economies depend on it and the alternatives would be too costly to develop. The ideal solution would be a new technology to clean up carbon emissions from burning coal. Voila! Such a technology exists—Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), which entails burying carbon dioxide from the coal combustion process underground. But CCS will cost so much to build to scale that the technology will almost certainly never actually be implemented. (see China’s Coal Bubble…and how it will deflate U.S. efforts to develop “clean coal”) The upshot: there is no apparent solution to the coal/climate conundrum that preserves economic growth much longer. The trends end in some sort of unpredictable discontinuity.

5. Deepwater Horizon: Impact on Future Oil Production

Now, back to the events in the Gulf of Mexico.

The U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that “a vast majority” of projected increases in U.S. oil production in the near term will come from Gulf deepwater fields similar to the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Such deepwater fields currently represent about 70 percent of all Gulf oil production (the other 30 percent come from shallow depths, typically of a few hundred feet). Offshore oil provides almost a third of total U.S. oil production of 5.5 million barrels per day, and that percentage is rising. For the world as a whole, the International Energy Agency projects that by 2020 deepwater will be providing 40 percent of all oil being extracted. Why the emphasis on deepwater? Because we’ve already chewed our way down through the higher levels of the oil pyramid: there’s very little onshore or shallow-water oil left to find. So down we go!

The BP spill is likely to throw a wrench into these plans. Heavier regulations, and higher (more expensive) standards are on the way. President Obama has just ordered the suspension of all current U.S. deepwater drilling operations for six months, and future deepwater projects could be delayed by years.

Insurance costs for deepwater projects will soar (“The cost of insuring a rig against a so-called physical loss—damage to the rig itself—can easily surpass $3 million a year, and could reach $9 million depending on the deductible,” according to Rigzone). Total insurance claims on the Deepwater Horizon disaster could far exceed the total premiums paid by all oil drillers to insurance companies in 2010, so a bankrupting of some insurers is at least possible.

Further, deepwater projects require financing—however, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, the economy is falling apart. Banks aren’t lending because of all the bad loans on their books; and, though oil companies may be flush with cash, they prefer to spread risks around. Now that the risks associated with deepwater exploration appear much larger, and credit is tight in any case, fewer investors are likely to want to jump aboard. Oil companies may want to just hang onto their cash by buying up their own stock shares. After all, the object of the game is to make a profit; producing more oil is just a means to that end, and if a better means is available, why not go with it? Sure, “financializing” the oil industry doesn’t work over the long term, as oil companies need booked reserves in order to attract investors, and maintaining reserves requires exploration. But who’s in it for the long term? Hey, in the long term, we’re dead. Maybe it’s time to cash out and let a new generation of managers figure out what to do next.

Then there is the problem of over-optimism. Developers of production projects are naturally inclined to talk up the prospects for the latest “play.” Later, when reality sets in, initial rosy forecasts may not be borne out. Case in point: BP’s flagship deepwater Gulf of Mexico project, Thunderhorse, was slated to produce a billion barrels of oil at the rate of 250,000 barrels a day (b/d). Production hit 172,000 b/d in January 2009, but then declined rapidly to 61,000 b/d by the end of last year. BP has not commented publicly on the reason for this unexpected production crash, but outside observers are skeptical that the platform will ever actually produce the promised billion barrels. According to Post Carbon Institute Fellow Tom Whipple in “Peak Oil Review” for May 24, “At least 25 other deepwater projects are said to be facing problems of falling production, raising the question of just how much oil these very expensive deepwater projects will ever produce.” Take one Thunderhorse, add a Deepwater Horizon, mix thoroughly, and what do you get? Investor jitters.

Economic optimists never tire of pointing out how enormous the resource pyramid is when viewed as a whole. When society is desperate, they say, we will go after energy resources and raw materials no matter where they are, no matter how expensive the process, and no matter how much environmental destruction comes with it. We’ll solve problems that arise as best we can and move on. Growth is inevitable and unstoppable, and if fuels and materials that enable growth exist, we will find and use them. In reality, though, things may not work out that way. New extraction projects require the cooperation of many functioning systems including manufacturing/fabrication, finance, insurance, regulation, and advanced technical education. As that system of systems becomes more complicated, the sites of potential breakdown multiply. The current economic crisis is likely to rupture the system in multiple places, crippling extractive industries. Much of the remaining oil, coal, gas, and mineral resource base that could technically be extracted may well end up staying in the ground simply because society can’t continue to organize itself functionally at a high enough level to maintain the growing effort needed.

In short, the Deepwater Horizon story is not just an environmental tragedy. It is a story about the limits of both extractive technologies and the increasingly complex societal systems that support them. It’s a reminder that the whole project of basing unending economic growth on ever-increasing rates of extraction of depleting nonrenewable resources is wrongheaded from start to finish. And it’s a signal that hopes for our economy to magically “dematerialize” have turned out to be just that—mere hopes.

6. This Is What the End of the Oil Age Looks Like

There will be plenty of blame to go around, as events leading up to the fatal Deepwater Horizon rig explosion are sorted out. Even if further efforts to plug the gushing leak succeed, the damage to the Gulf environment and to the economy of the region are incalculable and will linger for a very long time indeed. The deadly stench from oil-soaked marshes—as spring turns to hot, fetid summer—will by itself ruin tens or hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods. Then there’s the loss of the seafood industry: we’re talking about more than the crippling of the economic backbone of the region; anyone who’s spent time in New Orleans (my wife’s family all live there) knows that the people and culture of southern Louisiana are literally as well as figuratively composed of digested oysters, shrimp, and speckled trout. Given the historic political support from this part of the country for offshore drilling, and for the petroleum industry in general, this really amounts to sacrificing the faithful on the altar of oil.

President Obama has called the spill a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster,” and his representatives are now referring to it as both the worst oil spill and the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

But it’s much more than that. It is a sign that we’re nearing the end of a trail we’ve been following for at least a couple of centuries now.

Once again, I must repeat: we’re not even close to running out of oil, coal, gas, or most minerals. But we face a convergence of entirely predictable but severe consequences from the depletion of the concentrated, high-grade resources at the top of the pyramid: less affordable and more volatile commodity prices; worse environmental impacts—cumulative, mutually reinforcing impacts—both from accidents and from “normal” extraction operations; declining resource quality; declining EROEI for fossil fuels; and the need for massive new investment both to grow production levels, and to keep environmental consequences at bay. And all of this is happening just as investment capital (needed to fix all these problems) is becoming scarce. In short, the monetary and non-monetary costs of growth have been rising faster than growth itself, and it looks as though we have now gotten to the inevitable point where growth may in fact no longer be an option.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster reminds us that, of all non-renewable resources, oil best deserves to be thought of as the Achilles heel of modern society. Without cheap oil, our industrial food system—from tractor to supermarket—shifts from feast to famine mode; our entire transportation system sputters to a halt. We even depend on oil to fuel the trains, ships, and trucks that haul the coal that supplies half our electricity. We make our computers from oil-derived plastics. Without oil, our whole societal ball of yarn begins to unravel.

But the era of cheap, easy petroleum is over; we are paying steadily more and more for what we put in our gas tanks—more not just in dollars, but in lives and health, in a failed foreign policy that spawns foreign wars and military occupations, and in the lost integrity of the biological systems that sustain life on this planet.

The only solution is to do proactively, and sooner, what we will end up doing anyway as a result of resource depletion and economic, environmental, and military ruin: end our dependence on the stuff. Everybody knows we must do this. Even a recent American president (an oil man, it should be noted) admitted that, “America is addicted to oil.” Will we let this addiction destroy us, or will we overcome it? Good intentions are not enough. We must make this the central practical, fiscal priority of the nation.

In my 2006 book, The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse, I laid out a simple formula that could guide us in systematically reducing our global dependence on oil. The same general plan could be adapted for use with all other nonrenewable resources. At the time, I naively thought that environmentalists would eagerly take up the idea, and that a few courageous politicians would champion it. So far, there has in fact been very little interest in the Protocol. It turns out that nearly everyone likes the idea of using less oil, but nobody wants to take the step of actually mandating a reduction in its production and consumption, because that would require us to dethrone our Holy of Holies—economic growth. It’s so much more comfortable to spout support for the intention to build more electric cars—a technology that in fact will take decades to gain even moderate market penetration.

Fair enough. But where does that leave us? In an oily mess at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico… and entangled in what may be the ultimate Catch 22: We want more petroleum-fueled economic growth, but we hate what the pursuit of petroleum is doing to us (not to mention the environment), and it looks as though “more” may not be an option much longer in any case.

There’s just no easy answer here, folks.

Jun 072010

From Green Right Now Reports

Everyone knows there is a whole lot of oil floating around in the Gulf of Mexico, but where is it going? According to at least one computer modeling study, the Atlantic Coast and open ocean may be victims of the spill by as early as this summer. The results are captured in a series of animations produced by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and others.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Will the oil reach Florida?’” says NCAR scientist Synte Peacock, who worked on the study. “Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood.”

According to the computer simulations, the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current could draw the oil to Florida’s Atlantic Coast within weeks. The Gulf Stream could then carry it as far as about Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, before the spill would turn east.

Scientists used a computer model to simulate how a liquid released at the spill site would disperse and circulate, producing results that are not dependent on the total amount released. They tracked the rate of dispersal in the top 65 feet of the water and at four additional depths, with the lowest being just above the sea bed.

Peacock and her colleagues stress that the simulations are not a forecast, but merely possible scenarios. The timing and course of the oil slick will be affected by regional weather conditions and the ever-changing state of the Gulf’s Loop Current—neither of which can be predicted more than a few days in advance.

The actual path of the oil will depend both on the short-term evolution of the Loop Current, which feeds into the Gulf Stream, and on the state of the overlying atmosphere. The flow in the model represents the best estimate of how ocean currents are likely to respond under typical wind conditions.

Simulations show that a liquid released in the surface ocean at the spill site is likely to slowly spread as it is mixed by the ocean currents until it is caught up in the Loop Current. At that point, speeds pick up to about 40 miles per day, and when the liquid enters the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream it can travel at speeds up to about 100 miles per day, or 3,000 miles per month.

The six model simulations all have different Loop Current characteristics. All bring the oil to south Florida and then up the East Coast, but the timing differs significantly depending on the configuration of the Loop Current.

May 112010

From Green Right Now Reports

Here’s a great way to use your head, without much brain strain. Donate your hair to help protect the gulf coast beaches being soiled by the BP oil spill.

A Matter of Trust staff with boxes of hair destined to help soak up oil

A Matter of Trust staff with boxes of hair destined to help soak up oil

By now you may have heard that one unique way to help reduce damage from oil spills is to send in your freed locks to help make oil booms.

Or even better, get your hair salon to donate all the hair that they spill every week. They just need to box it up and make sure it’s clean.

The hair is used to fill the oil booms or to make hair mats that capture and contain oil as it washes ashore. (See the video posted below for how that works).

Matter of Trust,  a non-profit that promotes sustainable ideas, is organizing mass mailings of hair, or waste wool and fur to the gulf coast. See their instructions page for details of how and what to send.

According to the rules:

  • Most locks are helpful, except for dirty hair and fur, so pre-shampoo.
  • Make sure to keep all garbage and any sharp objects out of the hair because volunteers will stuff it into booms later. (Mark the boxes “Debris Free Hair”)
  • Other materials also are helpful, including washed nylon stockings, fur and wood fibers

The story of how discarded hair became a tool for helping clean up oil disasters centers involves one man’s ‘Aha” moment. Phil McCrory, a hair stylist from Alabama, was shampooing an oily head of hair while watching on TV as an otter oiled in the Exxon Valdez spill got a cleaning. His thought: “We shampoo because hair collects oil.”

Indeed, subsequent experiments showed that hair was an effective oil mat, and McGrory  invented a hairmat which is made of hair clippings in China, according to Matter of Trust. You can see more online at   www.Ottimat.com.

May 042010

(The following blog by Natural Resources Defense Council oceans expert Regan Nelson was first posted on the NRDC site under the headline Chemical Dispersants: The Lesser of Two Evils?)

By Regan Nelson
Senior Oceans Advocate, NRDC, Washington, DC

Chemical Dispersants:  The Lesser of Two Evils?

Nelson is a senior oceans advocate with the NRDC

I landed in New Orleans at noon yesterday, and by 2 p.m. was on my way to Venice, Louisiana, nicknamed “the end of the world” for being the last community accessible by automobile down the Mississippi River.  Venice is now famous for another reason, of course.  This tiny community, which has only recently rebuilt from Hurricane Katrina, has become one of the staging areas for the cleanup effort in the Gulf.  Usually a quiet industrial town, Venice is teeming with people, cameras, National Guard trucks, official vehicles, and, yesterday, for a brief moment, President Obama.

As perhaps the newest face in Venice, I got a barrage of questions yesterday.  As the oil slick sits just offshore, people want to know what damage it’s doing out there, and specifically, folks wanted to know what we knew about the chemical dispersants that BP has been spraying over the surface of the slick, and which they are now spraying directly onto the leaks at deep ocean depths.

To paraphrase a Bush Administration Cabinet Member:  “There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”  And that basically sums up the story about chemical dispersants.

The important thing to remember about chemical dispersants is that they do not reduce the total amount of oil entering the environment.  There is a perception that chemical dispersants are like an industrial soap that somehow cleans the water of oil, and that is fundamentally untrue.

Chemical dispersants change the chemical and physical properties of oil, essentially breaking up oil that is congealed at the surface, and sending oil droplets down into the water column.  (By dispersing oil into deeper waters, away from human eyes, dispersants can also have the welcome public relations effect of making the spill appear smaller).  The primary objective of chemical dispersants is to avoid sending oil slicks into the nearshore marine environment.  We know from years of studies following the Exxon Valdez disaster that oil can persist in sediments for decades and can lead to long-term impacts to generations and generations of fish, shrimp, and crabs that rely on coastal habitat, so it makes sense that we do our best to keep oil from reaching the nearshore environment.  Additional goals include reducing impacts to mammals and birds that are vulnerable to floating oil slicks and encouraging bacteria to degrade the oil.

That being said, the use of chemical dispersants is a trade-off.  It is an explicit decision to weigh impacts to mammals, birds, and coastal habitat over impacts to fish and invertebrates, and possibly bottom organisms. In other words, it may be the lesser of two evils in some circumstances.

Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns

The National Academy of Sciences published a report outlining the major gaps in knowledge regarding the efficacy and effects of chemical dispersants.  Here are some of the things we know we don’t know:

  • Toxicity level and effects from chemically dispersed oil (chemically dispersed oil may be more toxic than naturally dispersed oil)
  • The fate and effects of dispersed oil in areas with high suspended solids and areas of low flushing rates (e.g. Louisiana marshes)
  • The short-term and long-term effects of chemical dispersants and chemically dispersed oil to marine organisms in the water column

Chemical dispersants have the effect of mixing oil throughout the water column.  During this mixing, the oil forms an oil-water emulsion, which is toxic (though not well studied).  Because the emulsion is mixed with water, it has the effect of doubling the volume of the contaminated area.  The hope is that this leads to increased exposure to bacteria that break-down the oil before it comes ashore.  But this process takes on the order of weeks to months. It is during this temporary phase when the toxic cloud of oil and water droplets gets carried by the currents that people are most concerned; it undoubtedly harms the marine life it encounters.

The type and extent of these impacts are the true unknown unknown in this story.  Right now we just don’t know that much about the effects of dispersants and we aren’t putting enough resources into studying it. There are a lot of important, unanswered questions about them, including how they affect the water below the surface, the toxicity from exposure, how dispersed oil passes through the food chain. And research funds in the United States to support oil spill response options in general are extremely limited and declining.

But there are others, too.  Skeptics argue that the dispersants often do not achieve their primary objective of effectively dispersing the oil.   Improper application or unfavorable environmental conditions can hinder the necessary mixing with oil.  Effectiveness – which is not well studied – is influenced by many factors including oil composition, turbulence of the ocean, temperature, and salinity.  Sometimes the dispersants appear to work but relief workers find the oil has simply reassembled elsewhere.   In these cases, coastal habitats are not spared the suffocating effects of the oil slick, and further undesirable chemicals have been released to the environment.  In addition, some studies indicate that chemical dispersants suppress bacterial degradation of oil.

So what should we do? This lack of knowledge leaves experts with inadequate information to be able to confidently support a decision to apply dispersants. Despite the problems and unknowns, many experts reluctantly turn to the use of dispersants because there are no good, reliable options once the oil is spilled.  Response technologies are consistently oversold by the oil industry; the truth is there is nothing that really completely undoes the harm of spilled oil.