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 is finally coming to an end. After over 100 days, it seems that a cap, a static kill and the relief well will finally stop oil from pouring into the sea.

The estimate for the flow of the well has changed many times over the past 3 months. It seems to be topping out at around 62,000 barrels a day. This is much higher than the original estimates, but how do they calculate the flow? The USGS used video of the oil spill, mass balance calculations and remote sensors to determine how much crude oil was flowing out of the break.

Chandeleur Islands - May 9, 2010
Creative Commons License photo credit: lagohsep

So what has happened to all the oil? Well, the White House says that 75% has been dispersed, collected, burned off or evaporated. Other reports have different numbers. In July the old cap on the well was replaced with a new and better one that captured most of the oil. Then a static kill, which uses mud to force pressure down in the well, helped to stanch the flow. The relief wells have been drilled and there seems to be no seeping. All of that means that the oil spill is over. 4.9 million barrels was pumped out in the Gulf, making this the largest oil spill in the Gulf and the third largest oil spill in history.

BP is waiting on a pressure test to see if they need to initiate a bottom kill. A bottom kill is when they drill to the bottom of the well and pump in mud and cement through the bottom of the well.

The spill has caused a lot of things to change. A moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf was put into effect. There have been several challenges to this.

Transocean's Development Driller III
Creative Commons License photo credit: uscgd8

Also the Mineral Management Services (MMS) has been broken up into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The MMS was responsible for conservation and environmental protection on federal land used by energy companies as well as collecting royalties and enforcing regulations on companies that used federal lands to produce crude oil and natural gas. They were plagued with accusations of corruption and ineptitude. The new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or Bureau of Ocean Energy, has been subdivided into the Offshore Energy and Minerals Management and Minerals Revenue Management. This means that the people who enforce the regulation are not the same people who collect the revenue.

The 4.9 million barrels that were pumped out into the ocean will have long reaching environmental consequences. Some scientists worry that all the natural bacteria that ate the oil will help to form an area that is low in oxygen. However, a mass killing of fish does not require an oil disaster. Numerous beaches were closed to tourists and locals alike. Also some areas set aside for fishing (and shrimping) were closed because of the oil spill. Unfortunately, it will take a long time to see what the real lasting effects of the spill are. In fact, it will take years to determine the true effects. Most of the beaches and fishing areas have been reopened.

Waking up on April 20, no one would have thought that we would be dealing with an unprecedented disaster in the Gulf. No one thought that such a disaster would be linked with how we perceive the modern world or our every day life. Will we take steps to prevent the next one?

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.