Enduring Mystery of the Missing Oil

The Enduring Mystery of the Missing Oil Spilled in the Gulf of Mexico

It’s on the beach, in the marshes, on the continental shelf and under the deep sea—and still not all of the oil has been found
Workers uncovered a tar mat weighing some 18,000 kilograms just offshore of a natural barrier island in Louisiana in the summer of 2013. Although the tar mat turned out to bear more sand than oil, it represented another small fraction of thehydrocarbons that went missing after BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The sum of all the dispersed oil located thus far, from tar mats to oily marine snow, hardly accounts for at least four million barrels of oil spewed into the cold, dark bottom of the Gulf of Mexico from the deep-sea well named Macondo five years ago.
Like any good mystery, this one may never be solved. Of that four million barrels or more spewed after April 20, 2010, more than a million remain missing, according to the best estimates of the U.S. government.

Mystery plagued BP’s blowout from the beginning. Initial oil company estimates claimed just 1,000 barrels per day flowed into the deep—an underestimate off by at least 50 times, as measured by a device that assessed the actual pressure of the escaping oil attached later in the spill. “I felt like a general on the battlefield. There was a fog of research out there,” says biologist Christopher D’Elia of Louisiana State University and dean of the School of the Coast and Environment. “We didn’t knowwhere the oil was, what it was like, where it was going, how it was being dispersed.”

This is more than an academic exercise because the total amount of oil spilled will determine the total value of fines faced by the multinational oil company. The federal government’s initial estimate concluded that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled from the Macondo well over 87 days, of which 17 percent was captured at the wellhead, 25 percent evaporated or dissolved and 32 percent was burned, skimmed or dispersed chemically or naturally. That left more than one million barrels out there as tar mats, tar balls, plumes or buried in sand and sediments. Although a federal judge ruled earlier this year that the well spewed just four million barrels in total, he also concluded that more than three million entered Gulf waters, much of which remains out there. “They’re still battling in court what this enormous settlement is going to be,” D’Elia adds. “But it’s always likely the truth is somewhere in the middle.”


Given the uncertain, debatable measurement of the spill itself, perhaps the total amount could be calculated by all the Macondo well oil found in the Gulf or surrounding coastlines since the spill began. Scientists documented several plumes of oil drifting in the deep, including one that stretched 35 kilometers long, two kilometers wide and 200-meters thick in the months during which oil spewed into the Gulf. Much of that oil appears to have sunk to the seafloor, settling in a layer of “oil fluff,” says biogeochemist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia. That oily marine snow covers at least 3,200 square kilometers of the Gulf floor, according toresearch by biogeochemist David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara. This mix of oil, mucus, shells, microscopic corpses and other detritus forms the top layer of the deep-sea sediment, as revealed by hundreds of cores pulled up from the bottom. But the oil appears in some patches and not in others just a few meters away, which Valentine, for one, attributes to the oil-forming droplets that hit some areas but not others: “We think it’s some kind of misting of oily particles that are raining down on the seafloor.”

Then there’s the oil that made it to the swampy shoreline of the Gulf coast despite the best efforts of booms, dispersants and even ill-advised, hastily constructed barrier islands that quickly washed away. That oil can still be found along more than 1,600 kilometers of coast, especially Barataria Bay in Louisiana, among other regions, such as the tar mat off the island of Grand Terre or the tar balls that continually wash ashore. “Whether the tar balls are Macondo or not is always the question,” D’Elia points out, given the many natural sources and other, smaller spills in the Gulf region.

The oil that disappeared into the sediment, whether in the marsh or the bottom of the sea, will remain there forever, however. Microbes in these sediments seem incapable of eating all of this oil—thus it will become a permanent part of the geologic record, especially the biggest hydrocarbon molecules. “If you look the cores, there’s still that layer of sedimented oil on the surface but it doesn’t reek of hydrocarbons anymore,” Joye says. “The volatiles are gone.”

And although microbes, sunlight and other natural processes eliminated much of the oil, whether it be in the deep, at the surface or on the shore, much of it remains—somewhere. “People are underestimating how much evaporates,” argues marine chemist Chris Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. As for the rest, he thinks it’s still at the bottom, noting that the oil traveled only tens of kilometers at depth, compared with hundreds of kilometers when oil made it to the surface. In fact, the biggest concentrations of unexpected oil have been found within 40 kilometers of the Macondo wellhead, which also suggests that much of the missing oil may have sunk to the bottom of the sea. “It’s not exactly missing,” Valentine adds.” At the same time we don’t know exactly where it is either.”

The Gulf of Mexico is a fairly big sea, after all—and even 210 million gallons of oil is a drop in the bucket of 643 quadrillion gallons of water. “You can easily account for the missing oil on the [continental] shelf, deep water, marshes and beaches,” Joye says. That may be so, but definitive proof of that is lacking—and no smoking gun may ever be found. As Joye adds, in a sentiment echoed by her peers and even theCongressional Research Service: “I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to close this oil budget.” The mystery of where much of the oil that spewed from BP’s Macondo well ended up may never be solved.


Why so far away? McCrory questions 50-mile drilling buffer

BOEMGovernor Pat McCrory reiterated his support for offshore drilling to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Wednesday. But McCrory told the congressional panel the federal government’s 50-mile imposed buffer zone “unnecessarily puts much of North Carolina’s most accessible undiscovered resources under lock and key.”

McCrory testified that the strict application of that buffer zone could place as much as 40% of North Carolina’s potential offshore energy reserves “out of play”:

NCPW-CC-2015-04-07-oil-rig-flickr-tsuda-CC-BY-SA-2-0-150x150‘I urge the BOEM (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management)to reduce the proposed coastal buffer zone off the North Carolina coast. A reduced buffer would keep North Carolina’s coast land ocean activities undisturbed, maintain the view from our 320 miles of ocean beaches and shoreline, protect marine life and preserve the availability of potential resources.’


Gov. McCrory told the subcommittee while he respects those who may disagree with his position, he believes there is “widespread support” across North Carolina for offshore leasing, exploration and development.

Click here to read McCrory’s full statement, including his position on revenue sharing.

– See more at: http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2015/04/15/why-so-far-away-mccrory-questions-50-mile-drilling-buffer/#sthash.Eyn9yUL5.dpuf

GOP criticizes Obama’s ‘restrictive’ offshore drilling plan

GOP criticizes Obama’s ‘restrictive’ offshore drilling plan
By Timothy Cama – 04/15/15 05:24 PM EDT
House Republicans chastised the Obama administration Wednesday for putting forth a “restrictive” plan for offshore oil and natural gas drilling.

Republicans in the House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on energy and mineral resources said the 2017-2022 plan would have the lowest number of sales since the 1980s while taking substantial areas of the continental shelf off the table.

Since the number of lease sales can not increase, lawmakers asked the Abigail Hopper, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to finalize a plan that is much more inclusive.
“This is not a demonstration of commitment to more oil and gas production,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), who was chairing the hearing.

“An aggressive offshore leasing strategy would truly demonstrate a true commitment to [outer continental shelf] oil and gas production in the U.S. It would also demonstrate a commitment to our nation’s long-term energy security and to American jobs,” he continued.


Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) was particularly concerned with a plan to hold only one lease sale for the Atlantic Ocean.

“Industry’s expressed an interest in participating in more lease sales than you propose, including in the Atlantic,” Lummis said. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to err on the side of more?”

Hopper defended the plan and said it reflects Obama’s commitment to domestic oil and gas production.

“Includes nearly 80 percent of estimated undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources on the outer continental shelf,” she told the panel.

She said the low number of lease sales is only because the agency chose to consolidate sales in the Gulf of Mexico that previously would have been separated.

“So, if you broke them in the way we break them out now, they would add up to 30 instead of 10,” she said.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) said the oil industry is always going to want more area opened, and lawmakers should push back.

“Most in the industry wouldn’t, quite frankly, be satisfied until every acre of the outer continental shelf is open for drilling,” he said. “They always want more.”

Lowenthal also urged BOEM to account for the entire greenhouse gas impact of the oil and gas that comes from offshore drilling.

“BOEM’s draft program does have not a lot to say about climate change,” he said.

Hopper said she and Interior officials are still figuring out how to account for the climate impact of the lease sales.

Lawmakers also heard from North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who was supportive of offshore drilling in his state’s section of the outer continental shelf.

“Harnessing America’s offshore energy reserves in an environmentally safe and responsible manner will lead to greater energy independence and more prosperity for North Carolina and the entire nation,” he said.

McCrory estimated that drilling off North Carolina’s shores could bring 55,000 jobs and $3 billion to the state’s economy over 10 years.

Responsible Practices for Minimizing and Monitoring Environmental Impacts of Marine Seismic Surveys

 Abstract: Marine seismic surveys, which use loud, primarily low-frequency sound to penetrate the sea floor, are known to disturb and could harm marine life. The use of these surveys for conventional and alternative offshore energy development as well as research is expanding. Given their proliferation and potential for negative environmental impact, there is a growing need for systematic planning and operational standards to eliminate or at least minimize impacts, especially when surveys occur in sensitive areas. Mitigating immediate impacts is obviously critical, but monitoring for short- as well as long-term effects and impacts is also needed. Regulatory requirements for both mitigation and monitoring vary widely from one country or jurisdiction to another. Historically, most have focused on acute effects but share a common objective of minimizing potential adverse impacts. Specific examples in different areas are given to illustrate general approaches for predicting, minimizing, and measuring impacts for operations in essentially any marine environment. The critical elements of a robust mitigation and monitoring plan for responsibly conducting marine seismic surveys include obtaining baseline ecological data; substantial advance planning, communication, and critical review; integrated acoustic and visual monitoring during operations; and systematic analysis of results to inform future planning and mitigation.

Key Words: seismic, survey, planning, mammal, mitigation, monitoring, marine, Sakhalin
Document Type: Research article
DOI: 10.1578/AM.39.4.2013.356
Page Numbers: 356-377

$12.00 eachVol. 39, Iss. 4, Nowacek

Will Atlantic Ocean Oil Prospecting Silence Endangered Right Whales?

Will Atlantic Ocean Oil Prospecting Silence Endangered Right Whales?

Companies have been cleared to seek seismic noise permits in the Atlantic, but ocean researchers fear for whales.
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