Dispatches from the Gulf: Film examines the effects of Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster may no longer be a buzzword in the media, but the effects of history’s largest oil spill on the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico are still on the minds of marine scientists around the world. Gulf seafood seems to be recovering, but biologists are keeping a close eye to the seafloor, where much of the oil has settled into the sand. Take a closer look at the lingering effects of the spill Tuesday night at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with a special screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf.

This April 20 will mark the sixth year after the massive failure and subsequent explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, also known as the Macondo Prospect, an offshore drilling platform 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The blast claimed the lives of 11 workers and from a depth of 5,000 feet, pumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas into the Gulf over a period of 87 days. A month after the disaster, BP, the operator of the prospect, announced it would commit $500 million over 10 years to the study of the effects of the spill.

GULF OF MEXICO - APRIL 21:  In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana.  An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon's 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

GULF OF MEXICO – APRIL 21: In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana. An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon’s 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

In addition to the tragic loss of life, many environmentalists expected a total collapse of the ecosystem leading to further economic effects in the fishing and seafood industry, yet as early as five years later, CNN reported fish landings had returned as well as the oyster population.

“According to the Food and Drug Administration, tests on edible seafood show no excess hydrocarbons in the region’s food supply,” Drew Griffin, Nelli Black and Curt Devine of CNN.com reported. “The spill’s effects on other species are less clear. … But perhaps the greatest unknown is what, if anything, millions of gallons of oil on the deep seafloor are doing to the overall environment of the Gulf itself.”

Our own Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway is one of the scientists keeping watch. She flew over the disaster while the oil was still free-flowing, visibly bubbling above the surface of the water from the break at depth. To her, the Texas coastline is the least of her concerns.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

“The oil can wash up in globs, which is bad for folks walking or playing on the beach,” Petway said, “but the real problem is that the oil stays in the environment even though they have removed a huge quantity of it. A lot of it has sunk.”

On the bottom of the Gulf, the oil has created a mat of tar, leaving the sand impenetrable to oxygen and light, Petway explained, eliminating everything beneath the mat from the habitat. Chemicals from the oil are leaching into sandy and muddy seafloors, making hydrocarbons difficult, if not impossible to dissolve or wash away.

“Just because you don’t see anything on shore anymore doesn’t mean it’s not still out there,” Petway said. “Ongoing research is being done as to the effects, and it is constantly being updated.”

Watch the screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The film will recap the unprecedented response effort following the disaster and delve into the research of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Tickets $18, members $12. For one night only!

You can learn more about the delicate Texas coastal ecosystem at the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology.

Deepwater Update

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill unfortunately is still leaking crude oil into the environment. Despite the best effort of several companies, our government and individuals, the oil spill has yet to be stopped.

The “top kill“, a method where a drilling solution (called “mud”) was pumped down into the well to overpower the pressure of the crude oil, was tried 3 times before it was considered a failure. It is the same effect as using water to stop Coca-Cola from coming out of a shaken bottle. If the water has enough pressure it can overcome the pressure of the Coca-Cola, and keep the soda in the bottle.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: pppspics

Then the cap containment system was tried. It involves removing the damaged pipes above the blow out preventer. A new pipe can then be connected to the old pipe allowing the oil to be collected by the Drillship Discoverer Enterprise (no not that one, or that one either). All the pipe cutting, sealing, and maneuvering is being done under water and using Remotely Operated Vehicles (check out my previous blog). They first tried to cut the pipe using ROVs with a diamond tipped saw. Unfortunately the saw became snagged and they had to use a shear, a large device that come form the top to grip down on the pipe, tear away the rest of the pipe, making a jagged edge. The more jagged the edge the harder it is to fit the new pipe so that no oil leaks out. This cap has been placed and it has been taking away some of the crude oil. Every day it takes more and more up to Discoverer Enterprise, but it has not fully contained the leak.

Relief wells are still being drilled on two sides of the well. These will open up a different path for the pressure to take, hopefully allowing the main well to be sealed. While this is still the mostly likely way to stop any oil from leaking into the ocean, it will take 2 more months to complete.

Louisiana is creating artificial sand bars to stop the oil from washing up into the wetlands. There has been some controversy over these. They will move massive amounts of sand to form small artificial sandbars and prevent the oil from coming into the wetlands. The oil would wash up on the artificial sandbars and then could be collected and removed from the area. Scientist are concerned that there may be unforeseen environmental damage done by creating these artificial sandbars. They do not want to act too rashly in the short term and cause more environmental damage in the long run, like the environmental damage done by dispersants that were used in the clean up of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

How can you help? There are a number of different national and state organizations have geared up meet this challenge. Here are few.

Deepwater

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Creative Commons License photo credit: uscgd8

On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people were lost and over 5,000 barrels of oil a day have been pumped into the gulf. It is a tragedy and one of the worst environmental disasters of all time.

This blog will help to explain why there is oil offshore, what an offshore oil rig is, what cementing and containment domes are and how we can help.

Crude oil is made form the desiccated remains of microscopic organisms that plied the water ways millions of years ago. They died (the very theme of nature), fell to the bottom of the ocean and were covered by layers of rock, sand and other debris. Through compression and temperature they were converted into hydrocarbons (crude oil and natural gas). Thanks to plate tectonics, many of these hydrocarbon reservoirs have ended up on land, but there are also many that are still under the ocean floor.

Colorful Old Oil Barrels
Creative Commons License photo credit: Magnera

The Mineral Management Service has estimated that there are 17.8 billion barrels of oil off the cost of America (for comparison the Ghawar field is Saudi Arabia has 60 billion barrels). So why do we drill for oil offshore?  Here are a few numbers that will help explain.  America uses 21 million barrels of crude oil each day (most have been refined into gasoline), but we only produce 9 million barrels a day.

The two countries that we import most of our oil from, Canada and Mexico, also have large offshore oil projects. Canada produces around 368 thousand barrels a day and Mexico produces 2.2 million barrels form their offshore wells. Other counties such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia also have offshore production.

So what are offshore platforms? An offshore oil rig is like an extreme onshore rig. Not only does the rig have to drill thousands of feet through the earth, there is also have hundreds of feet of water on top of the drilling site. The rigs must also survive whatever the sea can toss at them, whether it be waves, hurricanes or tsunamis. There are many different types of offshore oil rigs. Deepwater Horizon was a semi-submersible rig, meaning that there were large tanks that would fill with water to submerse some of the oil rig, so that it would not move off the site it was drilling at. It can be put in water depth from 200 to 10,000 feet. A fixed platform is fixed in place by cement or steel legs and can go up to 1700 ft. A jacked up platform can use their legs to jack the platform up till it is above the water level, and then jack back down to move to a new location. They usually operate in up to 400 ft of water. A drillship is not a platform at all but a ship that can be used to drill wells. Its uses a series of thrusters to maintain position and it can operate in up to 13,000 feet of water.

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Semi-submersible rig
Creative Commons License photo credit: roger_melb

So which one is the best one? Because all the different offshore options can operate in varying depths and environments, it really is dependent on the location.

Cementing has come up a lot in the news recently. Most people may not know what that means. After a well is drilled and the casing is laid in, a special mixture of cement can be poured down to help support the well. It can help to keep the pressure constant, to reinforce the well walls or to plug up a well that is no longer producing. The cement used for the wells very from well to well. The mixture is based on the rock in the well and other variables such as the pressure at different depths.

If the pressure becomes too much an uncontrolled release can occur called a blowout. It can be oil, natural gas, water or a combination of two or three of those. One the most iconic examples of a blowout is Spindletop. No one wants a blow out. Not only does can it cause environmental damage but it can threaten the very lives of the people who work on rigs. To stop this there are automated measures and human control methods. For example, an operator could notice a change in pressure in the drilling mud. He would then try to relieve the pressure in a controlled method. If all else fails a blow out preventer can be used. A blow out preventer is a device that physically plugs the well so nothing can escape.

So if a blowout happens, then what? What happens when an offshore oil rig can’t stop producing such as Piper Alpha or Deepwater Horizon? Remote operated vehicles (ROVs) can be sent down to assess the situation and try to stanch the flow. A remotely operated vehicle is just that, a vehicle that is operated remotely by a person. If the ROVs can not stop the well a containment dome can be lowered down to cover the leak. A containment dome works by covering the area and then channeling the pressure off, and in this case to collect the crude oil. The first containment dome lowered down on the Deepwater Horizon was unsuccessful due to a build up of methane hydrates (or fire ice) on the dome. There are plans to drop a smaller dome, which would be easier to heat up if methane hydrates forms.

There are also efforts to contain and remove the oil that has come up. One of the choices is to burn off the crude oil. This can only be done under certain conditions, such as low winds, calm seas, and can not work on every spill. Another way is to put a boom around the spill to contain it and reclaim it. If the oil is on the surface, a skimmer can be used to gather and separate the oil. Chemicals can be sprayed on the oil spill to make the oil disperse or to clump together. Two types of dispersants have been spread on the Deepwater Horizon spill to help disperse it.

Another way to try and stop the oil that is coming out of the well is to drill a relief well. This would take the pressure off the well hole (it is like opening another hole in a shaken coke bottle to take the pressure off the main hole).

So what can we do? The national wildlife federation has created a page to help with that. Check with your barber or hair stylist to see if you can donate hair to make a boom. The best thing you can do is become energy aware. To understand where we get our energy from and how much of it you use. That is the first step to true energy independence.