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Natural Oil Seeps vs. Oil Spills May 26, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Back when this all first started, after explaining that Deepwater Horizon had been sabotaged by militant environmentalists, everyone’s favorite conservative radio host had the following to say about America’s worst oil spill:

“The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there.  It’s natural.  It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”  -Rush Limbaugh, 5/3/10.

Before we dive into the content, I must correct a misconception on display: “natural” does not equal “good.”  It can, and in advertisements it always does, but in reality, the two words are not synonymous. There are a lot of terrible things in nature: Ebola; Infanticide (e.g. in lions); Rape (e.g. in dolphins); Murder (e.g. in chimps); Cannibalism (e.g. all over the place). All natural, but not good.  Sorry, pet peeve.

Back to oil, Limbaugh has also made the claim that more oil seeps into the Gulf of Mexico naturally, every year, than has spilled from Deepwater Horizon.  As it turns out, this claim is actually true.

Oil seeps are fairly common around the world both underwater and aboveground.  Oil seeps occur when enough cracks and fissures form above a reservoir to enable a small quantity of oil to escape naturally.  The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles (pictured below) are a large terrestrial oil seep, and oil seeps have long been used to help identify submarine oil reserves.  Oil seeps are prevalent in many bodies of water, and the Gulf of Mexico is no exception.

Oil seeps are common both aboveground and underwater.

A satellite survey published in January of 2000 counted at least 600 natural oil seeps within the Gulf.  And they release a lot of oil.

As you know if you’ve been following this tragedy, it is difficult to calculate underwater spill rates.  Especially for 600+ sites.  So the numbers here are pretty wide ranges, but the scale of the estimates is impressive.  A 2003 National Academies study estimated that about 980,000 barrels of oil, or about 41 million gallons, seep into the Gulf – every year.  Recall that the Exxon Valdez is estimated to have spilled about 250,000 barrels.

This link will take you to a table of annual petroleum releases into U.S. waters by source, but it is confusing to read.  If you are willing to wade through the paper, though, the pages that follow do explain each of the individual sources.

So if that much oil seeps out every year, why isn’t the Gulf covered in oil slicks?  It actually is. You just can’t see them (and it doesn’t really matter).  Oil can spread out very, very thinly.  In fact, a gallon of oil can spread out to cover more than a full square mile, forming the tiniest film on the surface, one-hundredth of a millimeter thick.  At that dose, oil is not dangerous.  However, when larger volumes are introduced, that spreading is unable to occur.  In an oil spill, a lot of oil is released into the same place at the same time.  All that oil is hydrophobic and wants to sit on top of the water, so it forms a thicker slick in higher and more dangerous concentrations.

While invisible up close, microscopic oil slicks from natural seeps are visible from space because cohesion between oil molecules flattens wave action to form smooth areas on the water.

Close up. Image Source: Jesse Allen, NASA.

Because seeps are dispersed and oil only seeps from them instead of gushing, areas around seeps are still able to support thriving biological communities. Scientists don’t even think the animals living near seeps have needed to evolve any adaptations;* seeping oil simply doesn’t have that great an effect.

*One cool exception to this statement: you may have seen pictures or videos of the giant red tubeworms etc. that live near deep ocean hydrothermal vents.  Those vents don’t just expel superheated water; some are actually gas seeps too.  The chemosynthesis that supports those ecosystems actually uses methane as a feedstock.  So those animals have not adapted to natural gas as a toxin they can tolerate, they’ve adapted to natural gas as a food source they can eat, and gas seeps as a habitat they need to survive!  …but oil spills are bad!

Large oil seeps can lead to increased microbial productivity (as bacteria break down more abundant oil) and result in some local hypoxia (lack of oxygen) on the ocean floor, but not to the point of causing large dead zones.  Further, individual seeps are not always active and the release rate can even vary considerably during a single day and from day to day.  As a result, only a small area around a seep is ever actually exposed to “fresh,” un-degraded oil, and that is when it is most toxic.

What we know as “oil” is actually a varying combination of thousands of different compounds.  Many of these react differently and have different fates when released into the water: some evaporate, others degrade in sunlight (aka “photolysis”), some dissolve in seawater, some get eaten by microbes, and others sink and end up in sediments.  That is, if they don’t wash up on a beach or become entrained in the biosphere first.

A study published in May 2009 found that oil from natural seeps normally stays in the water for between 10 hours and 5 days.  In that time, those molecules that easily can be broken down are, leaving behind the remaining, heavier oil – consisting mostly of larger compounds that are more difficult to dissolve, evaporate or be digested by microbes.  These molecules sink to the floor.

Oil from natural seeps stays in the water for less than 5 days.

An analysis of sediment samples from different areas around a natural seep revealed a consistent rate of hydrocarbon loss in the oil that eventually sank.  This indicates that there is an upper limit to how much oil can be broken down by natural forces in the ocean.  This appears to be the key finding for us.

The question we are trying to answer here is, “how are oil seeps different from oil spills?”  Oil seeps occur constantly, throughout the Gulf.  Although they do release a lot of oil together over time, their individual spill rates are far, far lower than the Deepwater Horizon gusher.  What’s more, these much smaller seeps are dispersed around the Gulf, so each seep’s oil can be degraded quickly.

That is not what happens in an oil spill.  It is true that the amount of oil that has spilled from this gusher so far is less than the ANNUAL AGGREGATE of all 600+ seeps in the Gulf.  But it’s all coming out at the same time, in the same place.  The water in one location can only degrade so much oil at one time; an oil spill goes far beyond overwhelming the ocean’s natural oil-coping mechanisms.

And remember, the oil from all those natural seeps escapes year-round.  Yes, the Gulf can degrade small amounts of oil within 5 days, continuously.  But that oil-disposal capacity is always already in use, year-round.  So any additional oil spilled does not follow that time line.  It lasts much longer and has a much greater impact.

So, in conclusion, the Gulf has a limited ability to deal with oil that seeps out slowly and is widely dispersed.  But those capabilities are constantly in use.  This spill is gushing massive amounts of oil into one place.  Marine ecosystems cannot cope with that assault.  And don’t forget the toxic dispersants that are accompanying the toxic oil, and the fact that most of the oil is still underwater, where it remains “fresh” (which, like “natural,” does not mean good here) longer because it weathers more slowly there.

This spill is and will continue to be devastating.  There’s a reason why one gambling website is already letting users bet on which Gulf species will go extinct.

Rush Limbaugh and friends are using true facts to reach false conclusions.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

BP – and Oil – Sinks to New Lows May 24, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***TWO UPDATES: 1) The EPA may be backtracking a bit?  I do not see why.  2) BP has revised its earlier claim of having siphoned 5000 barrels per day (bpd) from the spill.  It was actually 2,200.  BP spokesman John Curry: “The flow changes, it’s not constant.”  Neither is your story.***

As you may know, the EPA recently ordered BP to discontinue its use of the dispersant Corexit 9500 on account of its toxicity.  They gave BP 24 hours to choose one of the 18 other readily available and less toxic dispersants, and gave them 72 to stop using Corexit.

BP has refused.  Why?  We don’t even know. BP has actually threatened to invoke “trade secrets” to stop the EPA from showing its written response to the public!  On top of all that oil, BP had pumped 715,000 gallons of toxic dispersant into the Gulf as of Sunday, and they want to continue.

So just what do these dispersants do?  They break apart the oil into smaller droplets.  When dispersed into smaller droplets, oil is slower to rise in the water column – it may stay suspended for weeks or even sink.  This can protect some beaches for a while, but it greatly increases the impact on the aquatic ecology.

During the 1988 Nestucca spill in Canada, oil appeared on 100 miles of shoreline two weeks after the spill.  Oil does naturally degrade, but submerged oil weathers more slowly than surface oil.  As a result, relatively fresh oil can travel hundreds of miles from the spill.  There is also no good technique to remove submerged oil because skimming is impossible.

Aside from trying to keep oil off beaches, breaking the oil into smaller droplets facilitates its degradation by aquatic bacteria.  However, even when this process works, the added activity of those microbes sucks all the oxygen out of the water, leaving it a hypoxic dead zone incapable of supporting life anyways, even if it is less oily.

I’m not saying that dispersants don’t have the potential to reduce some of the environmental damage.  It is a tradeoff in the lose-lose scenario oil spills are.  But the only certainty here is that BP, not the environment, benefits most from the use of dispersants.

Fighting poison with poison: toxic dispersants are sprayed on a toxic oil slick.

A growing group of conservative figureheads, including Rush Limbaugh and Brit Hume, are rapidly earning the title “oil spill denier.”  They have been challenging the reported scope of the ongoing oil spill (even though it is without a doubt being underestimated) with one simple question: “where is the oil?

The oil slick isn’t as big as it ought to be.  The size of the surface spill does not match any realistic estimates of the spill rate.  And that won’t change on BP’s watch.

We have known for over a week that this apparent discrepancy is explained by vast quantities of oil discovered lurking suspended in the water column.  However, these plumes are difficult to monitor and impossible to measure.  The only way to truly know how much oil is there is to know how much was released.  That would mean accurately measuring the flow rate of the spill.

More on oil plumes and what’s happening underwater here.

BP says it is impossible to measure that flow.  This is false.  In BP’s own regional plan for offshore oil risks, page 2 of 583 reads: “In the event of a significant release of oil, an accurate estimation of the spill’s total volume…is essential in providing preliminary data to plan and initiate cleanup operations.”

That’s on paper.  In practice, we know that BP has not only refused to make that measurement itself, it has tried (and largely succeeded) to block scientists from making the calculations themselves.  Additionally, in direct hypocrisy with its own plan, BP spokesman Tom Mueller explained that no further efforts to estimate the rate would be undertaken because “it’s not relevant to the response effort and it might even detract from the response effort.”  Lies.

It is astounding to me that in this day and age, anyone could even consider attempting to withhold this kind of information and lie so boldly.  What is more infuriating is that so far BP has succeeded.

Since the first few days of this spill, BP has stuck to its 5,000 bpd (barrels per day) estimate even while all other sources indicate the spill may be as many as 24x greater than that.  BP only admitted they maybe their estimate is a LITTLE low when they siphoned 5,000 barrels from the spill in one day – without capturing anywhere near all of the escaping oil.  Go figure.

Yet they still assert that that figure is largely accurate.  How?  Because BP has decided to estimate the spill rate by the size of the surface slick.  This is why BP loves its dispersants: to BP, every gallon of oil that remains beneath the surface is a gallon of oil that NEVER SPILLED. And until the Obama administration allows them to control what information is released, their estimate (in the media’s eyes) remains the most authoritative.

Low-balling the spill estimate is not just a PR victory for BP. A low estimate of this spill’s size could save BP millions in court.  Even uncertainty helps them in that regard.  The industry learned lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill too, and the inability to precisely measure how much oil was released limited the damages that could be assessed.

I was wrong – it is now clear that BP has a conflict of interest in nearly every facet of this containment effort. They are unfit to lead this effort and must be removed.  Such action cannot release them of ANY responsibility for what has and will still happen, but they cannot lead any longer.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Power Vacuum March 17, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Politics.
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Chris Rock can predict the future.  During Spring Break, I listened to a recording of his stand-up in which he identified the need for a charismatic black leader who could make people believe in themselves.  That 1999 routine was just meant to generate laughs, but a decade later it is eerily prophetic.

After years of mismanagement, the Democratic Party finally has a capable, charismatic leader.  The Republican Party does not.

With the political tides so thoroughly turned, parallels can be drawn between early Bush II Democrats (especially in 2003-2004) and the current Republicans in how they’ve handled their full minority status.  It is early to judge the Republican response, but recent events and polling statistics can still offer insight.

During the last administration, Democrats faced an America that had [at least once] elected a “man of the people;” no Bush-bashing is necessary to establish that Republicans were benefiting from a simple, straightforward message and a president capable of little more.  Oops.

Throughout that ordeal, though, the Democratic Party stuck to its goals instead of hopelessly recreating the contemporary success of their opponents.  People liked Bush because it seemed like you could have a beer with him.  Anybody could envision that a similar experience with John Kerry would be tedious, but Democrats rallied behind him to champion their message anyways.

Today, in a roughly comparable position, Republicans have adopted a different strategy.  Ignoring the possibility that voters support President Obama’s policies and not merely his physical qualities, the Republican Party has been trying to emulate just the facade of the recent Democratic success.

During the campaign, the media and public were enthralled by Obama’s youthful vigor and followed each of his daily visits to the gym.  The Republican response?  Elevate young conservative rising star, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.  Only they appear to have picked this fruit a little early.

Despite Jindal’s relative youth, the unpolished, childish simplicity with which he talked down to the nation in his rebuttal to Obama’s speech to Congress was unfortunately familiar.  That speech showed that Jindal’s age will have little impact on his party’s preference for the failed policies we voted against in November.  And he clearly wasn’t ready for the national stage.

Sidenote: Jindal was so…underwhelming that immediately after his speech people around the country decided that he sounded exactly like Kenneth the Page, the dim country boy character from NBC’s 30Rock.  Apparently he thought so too, and actor Jack McBrayer recorded a response to Jindal in character (video).

Similarly, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s performance to date casts doubt on the argument that he was selected simply because he was the most qualified candidate.  It is perhaps fortunate, then, that neither of these men are really viewed as the party’s current leader.

According to many pundits, Rush Limbaugh is the de facto leader of the Republican Party.  And while Limbaugh does have influence, he also has a penchant for saying things respectable people don’t.  Steele briefly condemned his remarks as “incendiary” and “ugly,” only to grovel a day later when King Limbaugh got mad.  That hierarchy seems clear, but the country is remarkably divided about Limbaugh.

A Rasmussen poll recently found that 44 percent of Democrats but just 11 percent of Republicans view Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party.  How did that happen?  Well, we appear to be witnessing the return an ancient phenomenon: Democrats controlling a media narrative.

Last October, Democratic strategists discovered that only one in ten voters under age 40 views the talk show host favorably.  Since then, many Democrats and now even White House officials have engaged Limbaugh directly, propagating this unflattering caricature of conservative America.  But while happy to bask in the spotlight, Limbaugh rejects any leadership responsibility.

This guy's been divorced three times and addicted to pain killers, but what the hell.  Why shouldn't he be a figurehead for the party of "values"?

This guy's been divorced three times and addicted to pain killers, but what the hell. Why shouldn't he be a figurehead for the party of "values"?

So while there is confusion about exactly who is leading the party, a January Rasmussen poll shed some light on the type of leader Republicans want; 43 percent of respondents thought that their party had become too moderate, and 55 percent said that Sarah Palin should be the model for the future.  A scant 24 percent thought Sen. John McCain was the correct model.

And that’s fine with me.  Not because I could tolerate a President Palin (that hurts just to type), but because the harder she pushes, the harder we push back.  As David Plouffe explained, “[Palin] was our best fundraiser and organizer in the fall.”   Extreme conservatives certainly mobilize their base, but it is clear that when these figures act on the national stage, they galvanize Democrats by alienating moderate, young, and minority voters.   And this could explain why the Republicans have responded so differently.

The current Republican retreat to the right could yield wonderful results (for me).  With many minorities and especially young voters heavily favoring Democrats, the Republican future is grim.  At this rate, the current Republican recession will long outlast the financial one they bequeathed to us.

Recent Republican bumbling reveals an admission that something must change if the party is to have a future.  But it must go more than skin deep.  If conservatives aren’t prepared for this makeover, they will remain powerless.  At least until a Democratic president trashes the country.

A version of the post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.