Sunday, August 8, 2010

More on the Gulf oil spill

First the good news -- the plug in the oil well in the Gulf seems to be working. And in some ways the area looks much better than you'd expect. The devil may be in the details, though, as Raj Patel points out in The Nation:

In addition to making sure the slick was under-recorded, the company worked hard to make sure there was less of it to be seen. Besides the prison laborers who mopped up the oil at a discount on shore, at sea, over 1.8 million gallons of Corexit dispersants were used to make the oil vanish from sight. Such dispersants are banned by the Environmental Protection Agency, but the Coast Guard issued exemptions some seventy-four times in forty-eight days. It worked: BP's principal problem has, literally, disappeared. "I don't think we'll see any more oil going into the beaches," BP's avuncular new CEO, Bob Dudley, announced upon taking over. "… And where there is no oil on the beaches, you probably don't need people walking up and down in hazmat suits." In other words: if the oil cannot be seen, the danger has passed.

Sadly, "if you can't see it, it's not there" isn't sound environmental science. Oil enters the food system far more rapidly as an invisible emulsion than as a rainbow slick. Scientists have already discovered the spill's signature inside crab larvae, though the consequences of mixing oil and dispersant with the gulf ecology is uncertain, and won't be fully known for generations. By introducing Corexit into the gulf, BP not only hid its mess, but sowed doubt over the full extent and effects of the damage. This ignorance is no accident—for BP, it's bliss. It makes it possible for BP to argue that it cannot be held accountable for those damages that were not directly related to the spill.

There's a great big experiment running in the Gulf right now. The thing about Corexit and similar dispersants is that they're emulsifying agents -- they bring insoluble stuff like oil into a sort-of solution. On the positive side, this means that it will break down faster than it otherwise would... but that positive is very double-edged, considering the biochemical oxygen demand that will result from all that oil. There are oil eating bacteria, and this will be a huge bonanza for them... but all those extra consumers need extra oxygen to do it. And they'll produce plenty of good ol' carbon dioxide, without even giving us useful energy in the process.