Obama’s menu: Oil-Free or Deep-fried or BBQ?

— Pratima H

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Agreed. Here we are again with nothing better to do then hit hard on oil-policies taking a new turn.

UK, a few hours back, was supposedly toying with the idea of fracking permissions in some regions. The timing could not be more co-incidental as just a few days back US president saw his decisions getting barbecued from both sides of the grill on some latest oil exploration nods. Leaders across the globe appear then to be diving back into the ever-hungry well of controversy.

This is what has popped again. President Obama is, as per a lot of reports doing the rounds last week, mulling to open an area around America’s east coast for oil and gas exploration. The quid pro quo – making a huge expanse of offshore Alaska off-limits for the industry. This is part of a plan that surfaces every five years, wherein the federal government sorts oil and gas leases open for offer in federal waters and the latest plan has a window from 2017 to 2022. The idea is to open up the Outer Continental Shelf off the coast of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia but sans the continental shelf off the coast of Florida. Heck, we are talking about an umpteen 4 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 37 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas, as bean-crunchers have estimated.

Why is this disturbing the environmental radar though? Well, no marks for guessing that – do we need to say a word more than the big bad ‘Deepwater Horizon Spill’? The big ‘inadvertent’ accident which happened at a BP site and put US and its coasts neck deep in ethical and environmental grease, remember?

Well scientists, pro-climate researchers and environmental activists are not relenting a bit when it comes to not forgetting the fiasco.

Studies after studies and Recce after Recce have left no stone unturned in keeping the blunder fresh in the nooks of corporate world, political armchairs and oil-guzzling customers.

The huge spill in Gulf of Mexico refuses to sink back into the deep recesses of collective memory, and if National Wildlife Federation has it right, it is as much as 170 million gallons of oil that we are talking about. The big leak that flooded into the Gulf after the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig has reportedly affected over 8,000 birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals which were found injured or dead in as soon as six months after the spill, while on a long horizon, some 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants used on the spill per se, is a matter of another post-mortem altogether.

The side-effects have been wide ranging and deep-cutting when it comes to environmentally-delicate skin of ocean life. NWF puts several signs on the table. The marine life has been evidently messed with given what Oil coated birds’ feathers, or sea turtles seeped in oil or dead deep sea corals indicate well. If feathers have led birds to lose their buoyancy and the ability to regulate body temperature, there are mammals too that may have ingested oil and caught up ulcers and internal bleeding. As to the span of dying sea corals, the story is swathed in as much as seven miles across.

It has been reckoned that this notorious BP blowout spewed more oil and gas into the deep sea than any previous incident for the scale and time-window of effects it left.

In the study titled ‘Footprint of Deepwater Horizon blowout impact to deep-water coral communities, Charles R. Fishera, Pen-Yuan Hsinga and Carl L. Kaiser established that and additionally argued that soon after the well was capped, a deep-sea community 13 km southwest of the wellhead was discovered with corals that had been damaged by the spill. The researchers affirm that this was not an isolated incident; at least two other coral communities were also impacted by the spill. They also point out that one was almost twice as far from the wellhead and in 50 per cent deeper water, considerably expanding the known area of impact and also that a large cumulative effect of anthropogenic activities on the corals of the deep Gulf of Mexico had been ascertained.

In another such X-ray of the level of damage that the puncture did for the ocean life, Pennsylvania State University researchers too found two partially dead, deep sea coral reefs 22 kilometers east of the site of the spill, and this is interesting as before these findings, biologists only knew of one reef that was damaged by the oil spill.

What is notable is the physics behind the impact that the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) drilling rig at the Macondo wellhead site. It was not on the ocean surface or at shallow depths and also there was an extensive use of dispersants, and much of the oil and gas remained at depth. Not to forget, factors like weathering, burning, and application of dispersants to surface slicks which piled up additional hydrocarbons to the deep sea, and very toxic hydrocarbons and dispersants at that. The impact has resonated for years altogether.

There was another team of scientists that studied dolphins in Barataria Bay in 2011. This was a heavily-oiled area of the Louisiana coast and what they found were dolphins that were very ill (50 per cent, by the way) or barely struggling to survive (17 per cent). Also, on an average, almost 500 sea turtles are found stranded every year.

The accident hurled open dangerous doors of damage as per post-spill assessments and a ring made of an oil-rich layer of water on the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico, has been highlighted by a few studies.

UC Santa Barbara’s David Valentine and colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and UC Irvine were able to describe the path the oil followed to create a footprint on the deep ocean floor and other studies too have iterated the symptom of a bathtub ring, etched thanks to the massive spill. No doubt the accident has left million barrels of submerged oil in the ocean and folks from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have analyzed more than 3,000 samples collected at 534 locations thus identifying a 1,250-square-mile patch of the deep sea floor where 2 percent to 16 percent of the discharged oil was deposited.

To BP’s credit, billions of dollars have been as being spent on the cleaning-up act and in all fairness, the sources of oil deposition and area geographical attributes have been questioned well by the oil conglomerate.

But the question and a muted answer still hangs in the air. Where did the oil go and where has it been trickling all this time?

To the marine life that we see? The deep universe and ecosystem of climate-relevance that evades our eyes? The beaches and coasts where humans move?

Some scientists offer they have found significant amounts on the Gulf floor, some weigh in on the levels that have been already washed into wetlands and some even insinuate at the possibility of a toxic marine snow’. That could have certainly happened if oil on the surface of the water sunk and landed on the reefs as a substance thanks to chemical dispersants, which ironically are employed to stop oil spills from flowing to coastal environments. The oil, thus, forms droplets that gravitate hundreds of feet below the surface.

Another scary hypothesis is that of deep sea being a slow-moving environment and when things change slowly, it becomes hard to assess the impact that has already been inflicted and the dents will keep emerging in future.

Swing now to another side of arguments and ‘look what I found’ reports, and interestingly this one comes from a huddle of academics and not BP’s corner rooms – the story of a pro-spill bacteria!

Florida State University researchers noticed a certain kind of bacteria that has been consuming some of the chemicals released when the oil flowed out into the ocean for many days. This specific species apparently started to multiply in the deep-sea spot of hydrocarbons that the spill caused, at more than 3,000 feet below sea level and a study of its genome and other features has revealed the bacteria consumed chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

What the captain and crew of the R/V Ocean Veritas and hungry, fluid brains from the University of California at Berkeley, Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) spotted is intriguing.

Colwellia have been spotted to have increased in numbers abundance when the concentration of these and other gases increased in June 2010, same time as the spill and it could be due to the ability to degrade ethane and propane.

Marine life, surprisingly is clairvoyant for having formed such unusual species that can get rid of oil humans mistakenly toss out. The American Chemical Society’s published research also mentioned a variety of oil-eating bacteria as natural inhabitants of the Gulf, perhaps, due to a constant supply of their food.

Terry Hazen, the person leading this team had stated to have analyzed DNA, proteins and other parts of bacteria and surmised that the Gulf of Mexico is more resilient and better able to recover from oil spills than would be normally assumed.

Hazen quoted in a press release. “The Gulf has a broad base of natural bacteria, and they respond to the presence of oil by multiplying quite rapidly.”

A foot note as always – Colwellia were not consuming some of the most toxic chemicals, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), that settled onto the seafloor after the spill and the PAHs seem to persist for a long time, and more so if they are shoved deep in the ocean floor where lack of oxygen is an issue in chemical reactions.

Biology has been doing its dance well meanwhile. Colwellia were shown to have eventually supplanted Oceanospirillales, and these succession changes may have resulted, due to the changing composition and abundance of hydrocarbons over time. It was noted in the study that Colwellia abundance peaked when gaseous and simple aromatic hydrocarbons increased,

Spilled oil remains a matter of constant cleaning and debate even after 2010 is tucked years back into US calendars. Not only because it can severely harm living things with its toxic chemical and affect organisms both from internal exposure to oil through ingestion or inhalation and from external exposure through skin and eye irritation. But what is daunting and trickier is the part of fracture that post-spill clean-up work too hammers on the environment.

The good news of the White House resorting to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to make sure that regions north of Alaska stay off-limits to future oil and gas leasing; is also oiled in controversy and resistance.

Obama had even urged Congress to designate about 12 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska as ‘wilderness’ to stifle any future oil exploration possibility in an area, which remains the honey pot for oil companies due to an estimated 10 billion barrels worth of technically recoverable oil

It’s just not oil companies though which are sitting up and boo-booing the attempt to seal Alaska for good. Senators and political interests which argue towards the side of development and commercial progress, almost align at hips with the oil majors here.

It’s not a black-and-white decision after all, be it for leaders in US, UK or anywhere else. The many shades of Grey keep haunting the world even four years after the unfortunate spill.

The answer lies somewhere deep, very deep. As long as we don’t stop drilling.


Footnote: And here’s a latest poll that shows that citizens and scientists differ when it comes to opinions on issues like Fracking and Oil drilling. New Pew Research Center surveys of citizens and a representative sample of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) show For example, 52% of citizens favor allowing more offshore drilling, while fewer AAAS scientists (32%), by comparison, favor increased drilling. The gap in support of offshore drilling is 20 percentage points.  Similarly, 39 per cent US adults surveyed here in 2014 favored increased use of fracking but when it comes to scientists surveyed the same year, the figure was 31 per cent.


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