Where Has All the Oil Gone?

Disaster strikes in the Gulf, as the Houston Chronicle recently reported, with scientists desperately searching for the missing plume of oil initially predicted to be the size of one of the Great Lakes.

Today’s Washington Post similarly and appropriately asks (albeit, buried on p. A6), “Where has all the oil gone?”

Science’s study on this subject published yesterday solves much of the mystery (Abstract here). Despite predictions by numerous scientists that the purported 22-mile stretch of oil would not easily biodegrade, that microbes were not up to the job of ridding it, and that the Gulf’s natural resources were severely at threat, the reality is that the bacteria-based microorganisms are gobbling up the crude faster than anyone—including all the “experts”—thought possible.

Lead scientist Terry Hazen of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: “For the last three weeks, we haven’t been able to detect the deepwater plume at all” because “the bugs have degraded the oil.” (Link here).

This from the National Laboratory’s news release:

“Our findings, which provide the first data ever on microbial activity from a deepwater dispersed oil plume, suggest that a great potential for intrinsic bioremediation of oil plumes exists in the deep-sea,” Hazen says. “These findings also show that [oil-degrading microbes] play a significant role in controlling the ultimate fates and consequences of deep-sea oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico.”


Hazen’s study may finally raise public awareness that oil spills nearly always trigger substantial microbial hydrocarbon degradation, a fact that is too frequently ignored in initial responses…Future strategies to deal with oil spills must fully integrate measures to harness the microbial capacity to remove hydrocarbons…

Is it possible Hazen’s study may also raise public awareness that too often experts, along with the media, get it very wrong, painting false, doom-and-gloom scenarios that can have serious and harmful consequences?

Just last week, scientists with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute published a peer-reviewed study claiming that a 22 mile long oil plume extending from the BP well shows few signs of dissipating and threatens the Gulf’s natural resources. (Link here).


The oil “is persisting for longer periods than we would have expected,” said Camilli, chief scientist on the two-week expedition, which measured the plume using a chemical-sniffing spectrometer that can identify microscopic oil components. “Many people speculated that subsurface oil droplets were being easily biodegraded. We found it was still there.’’

This is the same tune scientists at Woods Hole have been chanting since May. This excerpted from an oped then by marine biologist Chris Reddy:

Microbes can and will eat some of the oil, but they are picky eaters.

They need time to organize, they work slowly in the face of the oncoming damages and are pretty demanding about wanting “just right” conditions in which to chow down.

I often think of microbes in this situation as adolescents assigned an undesirable chore. First, it may take them to get them to actually start the job. Then they will do some things very well, some satisfactorily, and leave a lot of work undone.

Similarly, there is a lag before the microbes will start to make any appreciable dent on oil. Then they will begin consuming the oil compounds, starting with the ones that have shapes and sizes that are easiest for them to eat. Eventually they stall, leaving behind the larger and hard-to-digest compounds.

Two other factors about microbes. Consider our teenagers — hungry after performing their chores, they may want to eat hamburgers. What would happen if the teens were rewarded with 10,000 burgers? Some would be eaten but not all, and not all within an hour. Microbes in the Gulf face similar challenges.

And from June:

Scientists caution that this is only a partial solution. It’s best used on sandy beaches and in salt marshes after the thickest oil has been removed by bulldozer and shovel. It has never been tried in deep water or open ocean… But microbes can’t do the whole job, said Chris Reddy, marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

“The idea that microbes can come in and clean house from A to Z is not likely,” he said. “What they can do — on their own time — is eat some compounds and play an important role in the cleanup.”

But Woods Hole marine scientists were not the only so called experts discrediting microbes as an effective way to remove the oil. Robert Carney, biological oceanographer at Louisiana State University, as reported by the National Geographic: “Microbes are not an oil-cleanup panacea…The sentimentality that bacteria turn everything into fish food and CO2 is total bull.”

Finally, this conclusion based on a National Science Foundation on-site study by John Kessler of Texas A&M, referring to a White House report:

These reports seem to indicate that about 25 percent of the spill has been recovered or removed, another 25 percent has been dispersed, and another 25 percent has been evaporated or dissolved. But the reality is that only 25 percent has been removed from the ocean – the rest is still out there. Just because the form of the material is now dissolved or dispersed doesn’t mean it isn’t in the ocean and doesn’t pose significant problems.

With so many scientists getting it wrong, it raises more questions about expert, even peer-reviewed, opinions that so directly impact policies, economies, ecologies, and people’s lives in such profound ways.

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