Oil Spills and their Impact on the Environment

Today’s Guest Blogger is Wes Tunnel, Ph.D. , marine biologist who has studied oil spills and their impact on the environment. For over 40 years he has helped develop the National Spill Control School. Dr. Tunnell, is Associate Curator of Malacology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Associate Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and Professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Dr.

Studying oil spills is not something many scientists do as a planned area of study for their advanced degree. Unless they are at a university near a major spill, they likely will not get engaged in studying oil spills unless one happens “in their back yard.”

That is exactly what happened to me early in my career as a marine scientist, and it is what happened to many scientists across the northern Gulf of Mexico last year (2010) with the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo spill.

Gulf Coast Oil Spill

I first had the opportunity to start learning about oil spills and their effect on the environment in the mid-1970s when our university received a grant to develop the first oil spill training program in the United States.

It took about two years of gathering information and interviewing people for the leaders of this program to establish the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (then called Texas A&I University at Corpus Christi). The week-long classes established for the School included specialists lecturing on the biological, chemical, and physical aspects of oil and its impact on the environment, and it also covered aspects of policy, law, social impacts, clean up techniques and strategies, and a whole realm of related topics. Attendees would see newly created movies, as well as vintage ones of previous oil spills, and they would get field experience in working with booms, skimmers, and other clean up techniques.

However, for me, this was all just book learning, and I had always been a proponent of hands-on, field oriented biology for the best understanding of any topic.

Well, on June 3, 1979, when the Ixtoc I oil well blew out in the southern Gulf of Mexico, it looked like I might get that chance. By early August, the predicted 60-day movement of oil proved true as South Texas beaches were coated for over 150 miles between the mouth of the Rio Grande to north of Port Aransas. The oil ranged from 5 to 10 yards in width and 3 to 15 inches in thickness along this entire stretch of coast. It was sickening, and I thought our beloved beaches would be ruined forever.

Working with funding from NOAA, we ran 13 transects along the length of Padre Island from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande.

These extended from the third sandbar offshore to the upper extent of the intertidal zone. Since we knew the oil was coming, which often is not the case, we were able to do pre-spill samples before the oil arrived and then post-spill samples after it arrived.

In general, we found reductions in numbers of organisms (not numbers of species) by 80% in the intertidal zone (area where the waves wash the shore) and 50% in the subtidal zone (offshore bar and trough zone, where the waves are breaking). Although this news was devastating at first, we were pleased to find out that the beaches had recovered fully in about 2.5-3 years. A combination of fast weathering of oil (biological, chemical, and physical break down of oil) and fast reproductive abilities of most beach organisms allowed for this quick recovery.

John W. Tunnell, Jr. Ph.D.

Although this story of impact and recovery is much more complex than what is related here, we did not have sufficient funds to track the exact timing or impact, since research funds were cut off. This is typical of many large spills, so we don’t have the kind of information to answer many of the question that were flying last summer. The commitment of BP to fund the Gulf Research Initiative at $500 million total, or $50 million per year, over the next 10 years should greatly help our knowledge of dealing with and understanding future spills. Funding from NSF, NOAA, EPA, and other federal and state agencies should add to this knowledge also.

Learn more on oil spills and their impact on the marine environment from Dr. Wes Tunnel at his lecture on Monday, August 29 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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.

screensh33
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.

Home Sweet Oil Platform

Beyond Petroleum
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

We all breathed a sign of relief this weekend as Gustav spared the Houston area.  We hope that the hurricanes backed up for landing on our continent follow his example and fizzle out before causing as much harm as we have seen in the past century.  Katrina and Rita caused untold damage from which we are still struggling to recover.

The Gulf of Mexico normally produces about 1.5 million barrels a day of U.S. crude: 2% of global oil production and about a quarter of our domestic output. Many damaged platforms and oil rigs in the Gulf were sunk or put adrift after Katrina and Rita.  

This appears alarming at first,  and of course, oli platform cost us millions of dollars to replace – to say nothing of the production lost.  But the story is not all dark.  Our guest blogger,  Lindsey Goodier from the Oil and Gas Investor tells us more…

I learned something new yesterday – did you know that oil platforms are home to thousands of underwater creatures?

reef fish & soft coral
Creative Commons License photo credit: jon hanson

The protection provided by the platforms attracts a variety of fish and the structures become home to corals, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Over the past 20 years, over 200 platforms that are no longer used have attracted many sea creatures. The conglomeration of sea creatures at these oil platforms has served as a learning center for marine life observation.

Especially in the Gulf of Mexico, the habitat the platforms create for fish is of value to fishermen. Since the GOM is a flat plain, comprised of mud, clay and sand with very little natural rock bottom and reef habitat, the platforms are one of the few places that habitats can form. Without oil platforms, fish and other marine life would be far more dispersed, making commercial fishing, recreational fishing and diving more difficult.

As observed and documented by the Minerals Management Service’s (MMS) diving scientists, invertebrates and plants attach to petroleum platforms within weeks of their placement in the marine environment. Within a year, the platform can be completely covered with plants and sessile invertebrates, attracting mobile invertebrates and fish species, and forming a highly complex food chain.

Now, I won’t be so naive as to ignore the fact that oil spills do occur. Yes, living under an oil platform can be a risky way of life. But the benefits of community living for these creatures seems to be greater than the risk of an actual spill. And the enjoyment that they bring to humans who can observe communities of marine life is the greatest benefit of all.

Lindsay Goodier is the Online Editor for OilandGasInvestor.com; check out her blog, Oil Rules.

Feeling energized?
Read about the Minerals Managment Service’s announcement about Sperm Whales.
See what Lindsay Goodier had to say about our Wiess Energy Hall.
Michael Phelps and solar power: what’s the connection?

A Whale of a Tale

ewf_7044_noorwegen 2007
Creative Commons License photo credit: Erwin Winkelman

HMNS was honored last week when Minerals Management Service  (MMS) chose our Wiess Energy Hall for an announcement about their six-year, $9.3 million study of endangered sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Part of the mission of MMS is to promote responsible use of energy and mineral resources on federal land and the Outer Continental Shelf. Their results indicate that the whales are only minimally affected by oil and gas exploration. You can read all the news articles written about this event by clicking here. 

The MMS partnered with several universities and scientists such as Doug Biggs,  a Texas A&M oceanographer who led the research.

Humpback Whale Breaching by Official Photographer (NOAA)
Creative Commons License photo credit: pingnews.com

As is often the case with science, we now have even more questions about sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico than we started with. In fact, most of us never even knew there were any kind of whales in the Gulf, probably because they live far from shore and spend their time diving as deep as 7,000 feet for squid and fish.

Because whales use echolocation, in the form of clicking and buzzing sounds, to find their prey, there was a concern that the loud seismic air guns used for oil and gas exploration would disorient them. However, the study showed that the noise had little affect. The study also gave us more information about the breeding and feeding patterns of the whales that can be used for future studies. The recent surge in interest in offshore drilling makes this Sperm Whale Seismic Study in the Gulf of Mexico even more important.

I love hearing that sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico are unharmed by seismic surveys, but another treat for me was the people who came to Houston from MMS for the press conference (held in the Wiess Energy Hall Explorations Theater). Caryl Fagot, and Eileen Angelico are as fun to work with as it must be playing with the whales in the Gulf! They are in the Public Affairs office in the MMS Gulf of Mexico Region Office in New Orleans. Carol Roden and Ann Jochens are research scientists on the team. I love seeing women scientists in action to prove to non-believers that YES women can be scientists.

Randall Luthi, Director, Minerals Management Service in Washington DC has a sense of humor that could even entertain a whale. He is from Wyoming and pointed out that he therefore has first-hand knowledge of whales, even though they have a different species than in the Gulf. (I hope this causes those of you who are not grinning to search a U.S. map for the humor involved.) I admire the dedication of Doug, Caryl, Eileen, Carol, Ann, Randall and all of the others in attendance, to keeping our wildlife safe from human harm.