[Coral-List] BP Oil Spill Response

GJ GJ at fishion.eu
Fri May 7 17:29:58 EDT 2010

Dear Steve and listers,

Steve, thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts! 
I have been thinking along the same lines, although with a bit of different tack. 

Yes, there is no doubt that large oil spills are ugly. It is mess and lots of animals are killed. Nature suffers. But the good news is that eventually bacteria break down most of the oil as it is organic by origin. Especially in cold waters this may take decades (Exxon Valdes, Erika, Prestige, Torrey Canyon to name just a few). But reality is that all the impact of all the oil spills in and around the North Sea has been nothing compared to the damage of over a century of consistent overfishing of which the last 50 years mainly with beamtrawlers (10-20 heavy chains on each net, ploughing 7-15 cm of the bottom). For the Florida Keys, much of the reefs have already been dealt with by eutrophication, run-off, overfishing, construction, diseases, etc. You all know the list. Not to say that this oil spill doesn't matter, but in an attempt to put things a little bit in perspective. The fortunate side of this spill is that is in warm waters where bacterial activity is much higher and eventually the oil will disappear after which recovery of the affected areas should happen (if not the causes are elsewhere!). Oil spills have big impacts and the images are terrible, but it is not the end of nature. Also, they are not the worst thing we humans do to nature.

The bigger picture is maybe worth mentioning. Most of us keep on filling our cars at the gas station without really thinking about (possible) consequences. Of course BP and Transocean (owner and operator of the platform) are responsible and they must do all they can to amend, whereby the focus should be on cleaning up with all possible efforts rather than disperse the problem with nasty chemicals. Yet, all of us who drive petrol cars actually share a bit of responsibility. We continue to expect unending oil at the lowest price possible. Prices rise and the oil companies go for more difficult oil fields. Deep sea is one of the areas. But these all have risks and as we just learned when things go wrong they are harder to stop. And the consequences are more painful for nature. Unless we really go for electric, hydrogen, wind and sun energies, we will have to live with an oil disaster now and then. Rather than crying murder about BP, it may be a thought to contemplate the type of energy the next care to be purchased uses. 

What I really try to say, is that this disaster is a perfect chance to voice what the true solutions are to move around on this planet without destroying it. All the media attention is an opportunity to do so.

Best wishes, GJ

Dr Gert Jan Gast - Fishion Consultancy
Koningin Wilhelminakade 227, 1975GL IJmuiden, the Netherlands
Ph +316 5424 0126, Fax +31255 521546, Skype gjgast

-----Original Message-----
From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov [mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Steve LeGore
Sent: 07 May 2010 21:24
To: Coral List
Subject: [Coral-List] BP Oil Spill Response

I am going to contribute something that may well be unpopular, but I believe it must be said.  I implore the scientific community to abstain from crying wolf about the BP oil spill.  Cries of “disaster” and “destruction of fisheries” will, I believe, ultimately return to bite us in our collective asses.

Look, I am not stupid or uninformed.  My Ph.D. dissertation research at the UW (Seattle) concerned toxicity of Prudhoe Bay crude.  I have responded to several oil spills and I managed the year-long field sampling response to the Ekofisk Bravo Blowout in the North Sea – at the time the largest spill in history.  I have participated in training oil spill responders, and I evaluated IMO response procedures and policies to the Desert Strom spills in the Persian Gulf.

The BP spill is of course a problem that should not have happened.  Spilled crude oil makes a mess; it oils birds and turtles and is potentially devastating to air-breathing marine mammals.  BP must be held accountable for its shortcomings, which are many and profound.  BP should be encouraged to return to the days when its Environmental Affairs Department reported to its Chairman of the Board rather than its PR Department Head – as it did when BP earned the respect of the world’s entire environmental community.

However, we must remember that crude oil is not as toxic as refined petroleum products.  It is a mix of many hydrocarbons, including many heavy complex compounds as well as lighter fractions.  Leaving aside potential carcinogenicity, it is the latter that generally exhibit toxicity.  Fortunately, crude oil floats, and in doing so it provides opportunity for the more toxic lighter fractions to differentially evaporate into the atmosphere, removing them from the water column environment.  These same lighter fractions tend to dissolve into the water column, but fortunately they do so only to a limited extent.  They are, almost by definition, hydrophobic.  The only light component that dissolves to an appreciable extent is benzene, which, if I remember correctly, can reach 17 ppm in a super saturated state.  This means that there is a profound limit to the depth at which these compounds can exert their toxic impacts.  They are generally limited to the top few centimeters of the water column, which is of concern for floating eggs and some other planktonic components.

Yes, the rough weather and wind following the spill will tend to exacerbate these issues, causing more mixing and potentially affecting availability of toxins to marine organisms.  And yes, the extreme depth at which this oil is released in the marine environment may well create unprecedented opportunities for mixing and dissolution.   These factors may well enhance impacts of the spill in the GoM, but what concerns me much more profoundly is the wholesale use of dispersants.  The furor to control the spill, and BP’s concern for its public image with a  view to oil-coated shorelines, have resulted in pouring amounts of dispersants into the marine environment that I would have personally thought unthinkable before this spill.   Dispersants are in themselves toxic and run the risk of disrupting lipid-based cell membranes of fish eggs and other plankton.  They also emulsify spilled hydrocarbons, making them more biologically available in the water column..  I question whether BP would have used so much of these ill-advised compounds if public pressure had been more measured.

Oil spills are nasty when they reach shore.  There is no question about it, and the oil will indeed cause many environmental problems in these environments for many years to come, depending on how much oil reaches these areas..  But the oil will most likely NOT cause destruction of all GoM fisheries for the foreseeable future.  Deepwater fisheries likely will be affected more by fouling of gear by oil than by oil killing the target fish.

Yes, this spill is awful and was almost certainly preventable.  And yes, it will likely cause very unfortunate damage to the marine environment and marine fisheries, especially in shoreline environments that it may strike.  And yes, BP and its partners must be held fully accountable.  But the spill will not turn the GoM into a biological desert.  By screaming “Murder” I believe well-meaning environmentalists run the risk of providing “Drill Baby Drill” people an argument when the ultimate environmental effects fail to measure up to extreme panic calls.  Let us please be measured and realistic so as to not provide a free advantage to those who would overlook the real issues involved here.

Steve LeGore

Steve LeGore, Ph.D.
LeGore Environmental Associates, Inc.
2804 Gulf Drive N.
Holmes Beach, Florida 34217 USA
Tel: 941/778-4650
Fax: 941/778-4761
Cell: 941/447-8010
GMT + 4 hrs
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