Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Wednesday BP Oil Spill Update: Experiments in the Gulf

"You know change is a-comin’ after this, bro. "You can’t keep doing this kind of stuff to Mother Ocean."
1. Oil slick weather.

Carl Wernicke of the PNJ stepped outside his editorial office this morning to don the greasy hat of a newsman and report that Gulf weather experts are saying, 'When Predicting Spill, Three Days is the Limit.'
Experts say that because the slick is being driven by winds, ocean currents and frontal systems, no one can accurately project beyond 72 hours.
Cloud cover has been "frustrating attempts to get new satellite imagery of the slick," according to Prof. Robert Weisberg of the University of South Florida College of Marine Sciences. But favorable winds, he expects, will keep the oil slick away from Northwest Florida at least for a few more days.

2. Gulf Loop Current.

Because NOAA, too, only makes forecasts 72 hours in advance, the agency has nothing for South Florida. But Reuters is reporting it now looks "imminent" that "crude from the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill" will be swept down the Florida peninsula by the Gulf Loop Current:

Robert Weisberg, a physical oceanographer at the University of South Florida, told a conference call the so-called Loop Current that sweeps around the Gulf was poised to connect with the spreading oil slick.

Once "entrainment" occurs, he said, the oil would be pulled quickly south along Florida's Gulf coast and out into the Florida Straits, between the United States and Cuba.

"Exactly when the oil will enter the Loop Current at the surface is unknown but it appears to be imminent," Weisberg said, referring to the prevailing current in the Gulf.

"It could be days or it could be longer but it looks like it's going to happen, and it looks like it's going to happen now sooner than later," he said.

Other sources report that Weisberg explained "Filaments of the Loop Current are within tens of kilometers of the oil spill."

People on the Keys have gone into 'hurricane preparation' mode. As with army generals, it seems we are left with few options except to prepare to fight past wars we have known, not the war coming at us.

3. Riser pipe sealed.

NOAA is reporting that with yesterday's better weather at the site of the Deepwater oil gusher, "skimming, boom placement, aerial application of dispersants, imaging of the oil plume, in situ burning and observation overflights all took place... ."
Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) cut off a section at the end of the riser pipe, which used to lead from the well to the rig, and capped it with a valve.
Oddly, however, NOAA reports that "while this stopped one of the three leaks, oil continues to enter the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of approximately 5000 barrels (210,000 gallons) per day." That's the very same leak-rate previously reported.

NPR News is explaining this morning that shutting off one leak mostly helps only in preparation for lowering the containment dome we mentioned late yesterday. Apparently, the leak itself wasn't serious or else closing it off merely increases pressure on the other two leaks.

4. Experiments in the Gulf.

NOAA also reports various experimental techniques, as yet unproven, are taking place at the site of the underwater gusher. Among these are putting in place the cofferdam, or containment dome, and injecting "dispersants" near the underwater source of the leaks. Neither has been tried at a mile underwater before. Drilling of a parallel "relief or cut-off well," NOAA reminds everyone, "will take several months to stop the flow."

5. Dispersant Action.

What, exactly, is BP pouring into the Gulf? That's a trade secret, the Washington Post reports today. Nevertheless, the generic composition of most chemical dispersants is known.
Chemical dispersants carry complex environmental trade-offs: helping to keep oil from reaching sensitive wetlands while exposing other sea life to toxic substances. The concoction works like dish soap to separate oil and water, but the exact chemical composition is protected as a trade secret.
According to a 2005 book published by the National Research Council, "dispersants are mixtures of solvents, surfactants, and other additives that are applied to oil slicks to reduce the oil-water interfacial tension." [Purchase the book or read an on-line version for free here.]

Dispersants don't destroy the oil; they merely make the oil less visible. When effective, larger clumps of oil are chemically changed into smaller oil droplets which, if they are exposed to the elements long enough, will bio-degrade somewhat faster.

BP obviously is counting on dispersants for public relations, if nothing else. According to, as of the end of April, BP had "already bought up more than a third of the world’s supply."

To maximize effectiveness, dispersants --
should be initiated as soon as possible, and every effort should be made to apply the dispersants before significant oil weathering has occurred (usually within 24–72 hours in temperate conditions and possibly within 12–24 hours during the winter and under arctic conditions).
When used on the water's surface a tricky balance is required between energetic wind and wave action sufficient to mix the dispersant so it chemically binds to the oil molecules versus too much wind or water energy that leads to leaching, or separating dispersants from the oil.

Even at the surface, "no studies on leaching of surfactants from the oil phase have been conducted." Beaker tests, bench lab tests, field tests, and a variety of other experimental measuring strategies have been used in an effort to establish the extent to which, if at all, dispersants really diminish the overall adverse consequences of an oil spill. To date, it seems, none is entirely conclusive.

The National Research Council identifies four instances between 1994 and 2005 when dispersants were used in the Gulf of Mexico after smaller oil spills near the surface. The Council concluded:
Because of the close proximity of dispersant application resources, responders were able to mobilize dispersant operations relatively quickly, which may have contributed to the overall success. Effectiveness, however, was evaluated primarily by visual observation, and not all operations included confirmation by measurement of dispersed oil in the water column. Therefore, the reliability of effectiveness estimates is unknown.
Since dispersants have never been injected into a leaking well at the depth of the Deepwater Horizon leak, it's difficult to believe that this time it will be any easier to measure with confidence whether dispersants are truly effective, or merely mask the problem. As at least two scientists are reported to believe, "use of dispersants will most often lead to a much larger exposure of marine organisms to oil, resulting in more pronounced toxic effects on sea life."

As Scientific American is reporting --
“There is a chemical toxicity to the dispersant compound that in many ways is worse than oil,” said Richard Charter, a foremost expert on marine biology and oil spills who is a senior policy advisor for Marine Programs for Defenders of Wildlife and is chairman of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

“It’s a trade off – you’re damned if you do damned if you don’t -- of trying to minimize the damage coming to shore, but in so doing you may be more seriously damaging the ecosystem offshore.”
In short, using dispersants is, at best, a lot like shooting craps when you can't even tell if you've won a little or lost your shirt, your home, your family, and your job.

6. Navarre Nonsense.

The PNJ reports that eight miles east of Pensacola Beach, residents of Navarre Beach were "freaking out" the other day over brown foam atop the waves rolling into the beach. It wasn't oil, a local surfer assures everyone:
"When there's big surf, there's a brown foam on the water. All week, everybody thought that was the oil showing up, but it's not. That's just how it gets."
Yeah, okay. We've seen that brownish foam on Pensacola Beach many times over the years. But just what is it, anyway? Anybody know for sure?

7. Paranoia, Anxiety, Exodus.

An Associated Press dispatch reports"Paranoia, Anxiety Grow Over Gulf Coast Oil Spill."
People along the Gulf Coast have spent weeks living with uncertainty, wondering where and when a huge slick of oil might come ashore, ruining their beaches — and their livelihoods.
It certainly is affecting the people we spoke with on the beach last weekend.

It's even -- or maybe we should say, especially -- affecting those more intimately acquainted with what is about to happen to Pensacola. Troy Moon of the PNJ caught 'Chips' Kirschenfeld down at Project Greenshores yesterday. He's a "water quality" specialist who was collecting samples to establish a baseline index for future post-oil slick tests.

Kirschenfeld is thinking about moving away from the Pensacola area.
"I've talked to a lot of people who are gradually coming to the realization that this Gulf Coast is not going to be the same for 10, 15 or 20 years.

"Standing on the shore in blue jeans and a lime green shirt, Kirschenfeld said his time in Northwest Florida could be coming to a close sooner than he thought — all because of the BP oil spill that is expected to wash ashore in some capacity in the next several days.
* * *
"I'm seriously thinking of moving to the Bahamas," he said. "I always thought I would go there when I retire, but that might be sooner than I thought. Because if the Gulf Coast is ruined and you can't swim, boat, eat seafood or enjoy the natural beauty, then why live here?"
8. Pollyanna O'Brien.

Ever the optimist, former ad-man and local newspaper columnist Mark O'Brien runs through a (very short) list of four signs he takes as good news for Pensacola. It's headed by this patently ridiculous lagniappe: "BP gave $25 million to the State of Florida to help defray the mounting costs" of clean-up.

This, Mark takes as a "sign" that BP Corporation "will quickly comply with requirements that it compensate everyone for the costs spawned by the rig's April 20 explosion."

Oh, my. Anyone have a pig in a poke they'd like to sell? We know a buyer.

"Call me crazy," Mark says. No, that would be unkind. He's just having one of his "I'm stupid" days.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know what causes the brown foam. But I am old enough to remember when "seafoam" was creamy white, about the color if real whipped cream. Maybe Kirschenfeld can enlighten us.