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Can Oil-Eating Bacteria Help Clean Up the Gulf Oil Spill?

Soulskill posted more than 4 years ago | from the if-only-we-hadn't-converted-to-green-bacteria dept.

Biotech 139

sciencehabit writes "At this point it's unclear how much of an environmental threat oil spreading from the BP spill will cause, but the federal government is mobilizing thousands of workers to prepare for the worst. They have a potential ally: microbes that have evolved an ability to break down oil that seeps from the ocean bottom. It gets devoured by a variety of bacteria, which eat it by chemically transforming its compounds into useful cellular constituents." Wired has some pictures of the spill from orbiting satellites.

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Poop (4, Funny)

Donoho (788900) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050146)

I'd say it depends on what they poop.

Why don't you just read the fucking article? (0, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32050242)

The article makes it very clear that the bacteria convert the oil into harmless lipids, peptides and amino acids.

Re:Poop (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32051988)

Carbon Dioxide

Of course (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32050150)

Humans always have good luck introducing a new species into an untested environment. *popcorn*

Re:Of course (5, Insightful)

FooAtWFU (699187) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050290)

It would be difficult, if not impossible, for it be much worse than introducing a few million gallons of crude oil into the same environment.

Re:Of course (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32050322)

Pitiful analysis.

Re:Of course (2, Funny)

tool462 (677306) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050344)

We, as a species, have a record of doing the difficult, if not impossible, and often by accident. I, too, would like some of the AC's popcorn.

Re:Of course (0)

bricko (1052210) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050460)

This is light sweet crude and a lot of it is evaporating on the surface. The Exxon deal was heavy sour crude, very viscous etc. The bacteria will eat it up on the shore relative fast. With the climate of LA being hotter longer will drive the bacteria to a feast. Its always messy for a while and the media is down there not dipping birds in it so they can put them on air so get ready, but it will eventually clear up...just as the Exxon one did. Could affect the shrimpers for a bit though.

Re:Of course (2, Informative)

buchner.johannes (1139593) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050600)

so you choose the famous last words "can't get worse, right?"

Re:Of course (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32051518)

But then it does. Right?

Re:Of course (1)

networkBoy (774728) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051900)

If GP is taking those then I've got dibs on:
"What could possibly go wrong"

Re:Of course (2, Interesting)

DarkOx (621550) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051038)

I am not sure you can just make that statement. You are going to have a few million gallons of putrefying bacteria in that same environment when the food runs out. That could be plenty unpleasant. When its all said and done that bacteria may or may not have turned the oil into something more easily metabolized by other flora and fonna that was already there. You will then have subsequent explosions in some populations and declines in others. The entire ecology could be way out of balance for a very long time. The oil we know will kill a great deal of the things we care about; but past spills tell us enough will survive that eventually there will be recovery. The bacteria might do any number of things.

Re:Of course (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32051426)

hold my beer, and watch this!

Re:Of course (1)

Anubis IV (1279820) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052656)

I don't really see what the problem is. The oil came straight from the ground, right? So it's all-natural. I say leave it as it is, kinda like how they let Yellowstone burn a decade or two back. Let nature take her course and all.

Yes, this is a joke.

Re:Of course (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32054488)

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, for it be much worse than introducing a few million gallons of crude oil into the same environment."

Oh yea? What if bacteria managed to survive, get into the well, and eat the worlds oil?

Re:Of course (1)

aliquis (678370) | more than 4 years ago | (#32054756)

Bad as it may be I remember reading how all oil dumped into the sea outside Kuwait ended up being more beneficial (according to the article that is ...) to the environment (guess that's seen in a very short perspective to) since it was the fishing industry which affected life in the area the most and thanks to the spill nature got a way to catch up.

Or something such.

And it was huge volumes then to.

Re:Of course (1)

Jeng (926980) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050342)

Haven't we been using bacteria to eat oil spills ever since the Valdez incident?

I'm thinking this is a tried and true method of dealing with oil spills at this point.

Re:Of course (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32051018)

We just need to do it right, and introduce something that eats the bacteria!

Skinner: ahh, but as it turns out the lizards where a god send since they've eaten all the pigeons.
Lisa: Isn't that a little short sighted, what happens when where up to our ears with lizards?
Skinner: Ah, well we shall simply release wave after wave of Chinese needles snakes.
Lisa: then what about the snakes?
Skinner: We simply import gorillas who will eat all the snakes.
Lisa: Well what happens when where up to our ears in gorilla's!
Skinner: Ah that's the beauty of the thing, come winter the gorillas will freeze to death.

Captcha: concurs

Re:Of course (1)

DeroA (1795018) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051570)

This sounds like grey goo to me. Next thing you know the bacteria will mistakenly start eating all carbon based objects and destroy the world!

Re:Of course (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32052068)

They aren't new, they're already there. The same bacteria were naturally present at the Exxon-Valdez and Prestige oil spills.

Re:Of course (2, Insightful)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052090)

Humans always have good luck introducing a new species into an untested environment

Sounds like these bacteria are already in the ocean, eating naturally occouring oil leaking out of the earth. I suspect that the reason you don't find these bacteria already out there in the gulf of mexico would be that their food usually ISN'T there, not that these or similar bacteria haven't ever been introduced there.

Having said that, it takes remarkable arrogance to suggest testing that theory on a massive scale. Who are these people using the environment as a lab anyway... oh right, it's the oil company that dumped it there in the first place, one of the ones trying to convince us to continue testing climate change theories.

Anyway, look at the title of the article. "Can we save the beaches." Pretty clear the focus here is on keeping the problem from getting into people's backyards, people who will then sue. The focus is -not- on preventing any further harm in the gulf.

Why so serious? (1)

Sponge Bath (413667) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050190)

Free BP brand sunscreen for everyone. Just reach down and smear a tar like glob on your face. The article made it pretty clear the bacteria is not a solution. Neither is burning. This will be an environmental disaster. Too late to stop it now. Thanks BP.

Re:Why so serious? (1)

DarkKnightRadick (268025) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050216)

Accidents happen. You'd be as quick with the "Thanks BP" if it were an Exxon or Shell or whatever rig.

This is a catastrophe and all current rigs need to be fully inspected before another one happens (and it will).

Re:Why so serious? (2, Interesting)

PSandusky (740962) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050926)

Accidents happen. You'd be as quick with the "Thanks BP" if it were an Exxon or Shell or whatever rig.

This is a catastrophe and all current rigs need to be fully inspected before another one happens (and it will).

The kicker, I think, is that the damn things weren't already up for these kinds of inspections long before now. It's a pipe, drilled into the seabed, with a metal/concrete structure extending above the surface of the water and holding the pipe upright. It's also in a hurricane zone. Saying that they need to be inspected now is nice and all, but it's nothing short of criminal that they weren't taken care of well before the spill happened. They could have been inspected, should have been inspected, and I will happily bet you dollars to donuts that what PM could have been done within BP's resources was not done at all.

So, yeah. Thanks, BP.

Re:Why so serious? (5, Informative)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051142)

Those aren't just plain jane pipes stuck in the mud, they are loaded to the gills with failsafes. The other fail-safes worked (with regards to capping the well, anyway) but they were all topside on the rig, and so obviously they did no good when the rig burned down. The pipe eventually fell over with no rig to support it, creating the current break in the pipe.

There is actually a fail-safe sitting on the sea floor on this particular pipe just in case this exact situation. It operates a lot like some electronic/mechanical fail-safes where if the electrical connection is lost it triggers an unstoppable mechanical shutdown. The fail-safe in one this pipes require a certain amount of pressure flowing through the pipe, or it will hydraulically crimp the pipe closed. For some reason, it did never triggered, nobody yet knows why (my money is a pressure calculation mistake when setting up the tolerances).

What you can definitely blame BP for right now, without any new information, is not installing a remote trigger for this last-ditch fail-safe. It's my understanding that most drill rigs have a remote trigger, and the fact that this rig doesn't screams cut corners to save time. If they'd had one installed, they could have closed the leak by now, and it would be no big deal to wait another 3 months before it is actually capped.

Since this is BP's third major catastrophe in 5 years, I would not be surprised if they lose their license to operate.

Re:Why so serious? (1)

DarkKnightRadick (268025) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051182)

Given that, then yes. Thanks BP is definitely the right sentiment.

Re:Why so serious? (2, Interesting)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052104)

What you can definitely blame BP for right now, without any new information, is not installing a remote trigger for this last-ditch fail-safe.

Actually, correcting myself here, but apparently it was Transocean that failed to install the remote trigger, since it's their rig and drilling equipment - BP just owns the well. So it's Transocean's fault for not putting in all the safety measures, and BP's fault for not verifying that said measures were all in place and working as expected.

Still, probably just another cost cutting situation, with BP not willing to spend the money to have their own guys check things out.

Re:Why so serious? (2, Interesting)

alaffin (585965) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052930)

Actually, if I am not mistaken, said remote fail safe is not a requirement for drilling in the USA. That goes back to BP and a few of her large cousins in that oil and drilling industry (the remote fail safe is not required because they lobbied against it, suggesting it was unnecessary) but there's plenty of blame to go around on this one. In the end it will be BP that catches the most hell, and (depending on how you view it), rightly so - but it's important to note that there were a large number of screw-ups from top to bottom that created this situation.

Re:Why so serious? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32053106)

I would not be surprised if they lose their license to operate

You do not understand. We are rich and powerful beyond your wildest dreams.

Love,

      BP xoxox

Re:Why so serious? (1)

rtb61 (674572) | more than 4 years ago | (#32054766)

Accidents are not to be confused with criminal negligence. An accident is what happens when you 'spill the milk' at home, when a oil platform goes up in flames, blows up and they can't shut down the flow of oil, that is criminal negligence.

Corporate executives need to start going to jail for their corrupt bonus inflating shortcuts, that they are guilty of a crime is self evident, what needs to happen for a change is the individuals responsible need to be pursued and prosecuted no matter where they are in the world, that chain of command needs to be followed up by harsher sentences for greater responsibility and larger salaries.

Re:Why so serious? (4, Funny)

BBTaeKwonDo (1540945) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050220)

Drill, baby, drill!

Re:Why so serious? (1)

Atmchicago (555403) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050296)

Absolutely! We must cease our dependence on foreign sources of oil! Stop giving money to nations that don't like us! Drill, baby, drill!

Seriously, why don't the media make fun of the Tea Partiers when it's so obvious how stupid their slogans are? (Answer: large media corporations don't want to pick a fight with large petroleum corporations)

Re:Why so serious? (2, Interesting)

demonlapin (527802) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050796)

Stop giving money to nations that don't like us!

What's stupid about that? I happen to disagree with it - I'd rather use up the rest of the world's supplies of fossil fuels before exhausting our own - but it's neither patently stupid nor, as far as I can tell, a tea party slogan. "Drill, baby, drill" is over the top hyperbole, but it's also not a tea party slogan.

Re:Why so serious? (1)

DebianDog (472284) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050824)

If we took every drop out of US and used it all it would last for a whooping 8-12 years. YOU ARE CLUELESS!!!!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_reserves#Proved_reserves [wikipedia.org]

Re:Why so serious? (1)

Grishnakh (216268) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051124)

That's "proved reserves". There's lots more stuff waiting to be found, such as on the Atlantic seaboard.

Mind you, think doesn't mean I think we should go out and start drilling right away; I'm just pointing out that your statistics don't really prove anything. Personally I think BP should be seized by the government for being so stupid, its shareholders left with nothing, and the company put under new management and the profit given back to the government. Next, all offshore drilling should be stopped until these dumb companies can come up with a way of making it safe and reliable, so accidents like this don't happen any more. It's simply an engineering challenge, and they haven't bothered doing it probably because it would cost more to do it in a safer manner, with some kind of cut-off valve on the seabed.

Re:Why so serious? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32053578)

Yes, we need more oil spills! New York didn't get their dosage yet.

Also, there are no accidents, only poor design and/or poor execution.

Re:Why so serious? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32053976)

BP is a foreign corporation (BP = British Petroleum) so it would be hard for the U.S. government to seize it. Especially since the U.S. government seems to do everything it can to favor foreign producers of all kinds, in order to increase the trade deficit and sell off U.S. assets.

Re:Why so serious? (1)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052230)

And the North Slope of Alaska was supposed to run out of oil a decade ago, yet it still produces.

What's your point?

There is a big difference between proved reserves and the actual amount of oil in the ground. If you actually read that Wikipedia link, the amount of proved reserves is directly related to our technical ability to extract the oil. Furthermore, there are many large strategic reserves that are not proved reserves simply because they are reserved for emergencies. Due to the nature of oil exploration, the maximum is always much higher than what is known to be there.

In other words, if proved reserves are 10 billion barrels, you'll actually get more like 20-30 billion barrels out of it before all is said and done. Whether that will actually last you 20-30 years, who knows, because consumption has been increasing faster than production in the US.

Re:Why so serious? (1)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052118)

Seriously, why don't the media make fun of the Tea Partiers when it's so obvious how stupid their slogans are? (Answer: large media corporations don't want to pick a fight with large petroleum corporations)

Uh, exactly which large media outlets, aside from Fox, have not been making fun of Tea Partiers? What news are you watching? All most all the news I've seen calls them vile names and ridicules them constantly. Seriously, I don't know what news you've been watching to be able to make such a statement.

Re:Why so serious? (1)

AHuxley (892839) | more than 4 years ago | (#32053798)

FOX pundits told a generation of viewers that the tech was now so smart, safe, clean and green.
Add in the hint of never explored, under reported, gov owned land and it was a 'slam dunk' for US energy independence spin.
For a few years of US oil, you get a few years of $$$ clean ups.
Scrub baby scrub!

Spill, baby, spill (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32050224)

You go!

Timescales, timescales... (4, Insightful)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050274)

Obviously, over a sufficiently long time, all but the nastiest flavors of hydrocarbon are subject to biological attack(which, among other reasons, is why there isn't much free oil just sitting around on the earth's surface, and what is close to the surface has mostly degraded into a hardened mass of tar).

However, if anybody thinks that bacteria that evolved to metabolize oil seeps are going to be able to eat the output of a more or less uncapped modern production well before it floats and oils a whole lot of birds/beach/furry animals, they are dreaming.

There are practically no complex organic compounds that are truly persistent, between UV and adventurous microbes; but there are plenty that are persistent enough that you'll be dead by the time they've worked themselves out.

Re:Timescales, timescales... (1)

mpe (36238) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050744)

However, if anybody thinks that bacteria that evolved to metabolize oil seeps are going to be able to eat the output of a more or less uncapped modern production well before it floats and oils a whole lot of birds/beach/furry animals, they are dreaming.

Assuming these bacteria can even survive in such an environment in the first place. Or when oil is floating on the ocean surface.
How are things going on capping the well?

Re:Timescales, timescales... (2, Informative)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051196)

Microbes survive everywhere, there is almost certainly a type that can survive on the ocean's surface and metabolize the oil. I have no idea for sure, but it's almost a given, with microbes.

Last estimate I heard was three months to cap the well.

Re:Timescales, timescales... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32051954)

There are oil seeps all around the continental shelves, and more in the Gulf of Mexico. The microbes are there, but the oil is moving to the shore faster than the microbes can eat and multiply.

Re:Timescales, timescales... (1)

PSandusky (740962) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050946)

Aside from which, how about the safety of the intermediates in this degradation process? A bacterium enjoying the bounty doesn't automatically produce a safe result in that which was consumed, does it?

Re:Timescales, timescales... (1)

sourcerror (1718066) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051834)

On a similar note: do you have any idea what happens to heavy metals? And how the biosphere gets rid of it

Re:Timescales, timescales... (3, Informative)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052114)

Heavy metals are a special nuisance because its the atom, not the molecule, that is of concern. There are a lot of ghastly poisons and unpleasant pollutants that turn into a mixture of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and maybe a dash of phosphorus, nitrogen, an whatnot, if you burn them hard enough, or if some clever bacterium gets to them. Heavy metals aren't one of them.

Barring the development of a bacterium clever enough to catalyze nuclear fission, though, heavy metals aren't going anywhere. Best case scenario, they are(either through organic or inorganic processes) converted into relatively biologically inactive forms, and get incorporated into sediments and just sort of sit there. Worst case, they remain in highly bioavailable forms and float around the food chain wreaking havoc of various flavors.

I'm not an expert; but my understanding is that bacteria and other organisms can cut both ways on this. Some(either by happenstance, or as an evolved measure to protect their own biological systems) have chemical means of binding heavy metals into relatively inoffensive molecules. Others make things worse(from our perspective). There are a number of types of bacteria that can convert mercury(hardly salubrious; but less offensive than its reputation would suggest) into methylmercury(substantially nastier).

Outside The Box (0, Offtopic)

mindbrane (1548037) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050306)

If solutions are needed, then those in need, need only exercise the same degree of ingenuity /. editors exercise in bringing non tech stories to the front page via tortuous, tenuous, inventive ways.

The question isn't (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32050332)

"If the bacteria will eat the oil"; but "Will it ever stop if released?"

Re:The question isn't (1)

FooAtWFU (699187) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050556)

Will it run out of oil?

I mean, it's kind of "released" on the sea bed already. Presumably it could drift off to other parts of the ocean if it were worthwhile for it to do so.

Re:The question isn't (1)

pspahn (1175617) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050846)

I thought there was only oil in the Gulf and Alaska. You mean other places already have their hands on this stuff? Please cite your source.

Next you're going to probably tell me that we're not the only ones who have other great inventions, like baseball, and the moon.

Re:The question isn't (1)

OnePumpChump (1560417) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052312)

If the bacteria are anaerobic, they could get into the oil field itself and deplete it.

Re:The question isn't (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051136)

If it becomes a problem, we'll release bacteria eating lizards. When we're overrun with lizards, we'll release wave after wave of Chinese needle snakes. They'll wipe out the lizards. Sure, the snakes are worse but we're prepared for that. We've lined up a fabulous type of gorilla that thrives on snake meat. The beautiful part is that when winter comes around, the gorillas will simply freeze to death.

Re:The question isn't (1)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051224)

That's a dumb question, of course it will, as soon as it runs out of oil. Duh.

this might be a dumb question but... (2, Interesting)

JustNiz (692889) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050378)

I bet the little guys can't each much more than their own body weight in oil per day. Have you seen how big the oil slick is? who the heck has that much oil-eating bacteria ready to go?

Re:this might be a dumb question but... (1)

ig88b (1401217) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050414)

who the heck has that much oil-eating bacteria ready to go?

Nobody. And the article said the lab-grown bacteria can't compete with bacteria already on the beach. The answer to the question posed by the article, "Can Microbes Save The Gulf Beaches?" is no.

Re:this might be a dumb question but... (3, Funny)

pspahn (1175617) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050876)

Wait wait wait... what kind of techniques do they use in the lab?

A little Richard Simmons, some psychoactive mushrooms, and a shot of mGH should hasten the pace a little, don't you think?

Re:this might be a dumb question but... (1)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051464)

Nah, they trick it.

They take a microbe with the ability to generate complex enzymes, and feed them a diet of sugar and oil. They slowly add more oil than sugar until all that is left is oil, and by then the microbes are optimized to eat oil. Then they can basically dump them on a patch of oil and let them go to town.

Like the article said though, the natural bacteria in the area are better at it than the lab grown stuff.

Re:this might be a dumb question but... (1)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051396)

I bet the little guys can't each much more than their own body weight in oil per day.

They can probably eat a hell of a lot more than that, given that most microbe lifespans are measured in the minutes to hours range. They'll probably go through their body weight a hundred times a day, while growing exponentially. It's still going to take a long time for them to do the job though, as you'd need one massive bio-mass to take care of all that oil in any amount of time that could be considered "quick".

Re:this might be a dumb question but... (1)

srussia (884021) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051528)

I bet the little guys can't each much more than their own body weight in oil per day. Have you seen how big the oil slick is? who the heck has that much oil-eating bacteria ready to go?

It's called T. kobayashi

Re:this might be a dumb question but... (1)

AHuxley (892839) | more than 4 years ago | (#32053842)

I recall Germany had a lot of older East German military equipment that had very bad oil issues.
I think they used/tested some lab-grown bacteria to help out, but it would have been in some closed cycle system.

Certainly someone (1)

toxygen01 (901511) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050398)

needs to read Neal Stephenson's Zodiac to talk about fallout of such action. Everything's connected, once you employ the bacteria in the process, something changes, maybe some other organisms start to feeding on them. Once the harmony is unbalanced, it'll take a while to regulate itself to sustainable state. I'm no eco-scientist, but I believe, there would be dozens of experts arguing against such action.

Re:Certainly someone (1)

pspahn (1175617) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050904)

While I, and others I'm sure as well, would agree with you, you used the word 'harmony' in a way many of us are uncomfortable with. I would have used the phrase "Once equilibrium is lost" instead.

I don't know why.. (0, Offtopic)

assemblyronin (1719578) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050422)

she swallowed a fly; Perhaps she'll die.

Pimp My Disaster (4, Interesting)

MarcQuadra (129430) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050466)

Listen, I don't want to get crucified for this, but I did the math yesterday. 5,000 barrels a day sounds like a lot, but this spill only adds about 45% to the total daily runoff coming out of the Mississippi anyway. If this gets plugged in 30 days, the total increase in annual oil going into this 'neighborhood' will be about 4%.

Again, I'm not defending the spill, it needs to get plugged, but this isn't going to dramatically change the situation in that area of the Gulf, mostly because the Gulf is such a mess already.

Re:Pimp My Disaster (2, Insightful)

seifried (12921) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050988)

But this is a relatively concentrated spill as compared to the runoff from the Mississippi river. Most things aren't a problem if sufficiently diluted ("the solution to pollution is dilution" as the old saying goes, put it up a smoke stack or into a river and it's all good). This is concentrated sufficiently to cause real problems.

Re:Pimp My Disaster (5, Insightful)

MartinSchou (1360093) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051268)

Listen, I don't want to get crucified for this, but I did the math yesterday. 5,000 barrels a day sounds like a lot, but this spill only adds about 45% to the total daily runoff coming out of the Mississippi anyway.

Not entirely sure what you mean by this. Are you saying that the Mississippi 'leaks' 11,000 barrels of crude oil into the Mexican Gulf a day?

I did my own math on that. The river [wikipedia.org] has an average discharge of 12,743 m^3/s. One barrel of oil [wikipedia.org] is 0.158'987'3 m^3. 11,000 barrels a day equals 0.020'241'438'7 m^3/s, which is 1.6 * 10^-4%. Granted, that's really not a lot, but at 83 dollars a barrel, it does sound rather odd if the oil companies would be willing to let almost a million dollars a day just drift away

The problem with oil though, isn't so much that there's a lot of it, because in this case, there really isn't. It's just under 800 m^3 a day, and the Gulf of Mexico is a huge body of water. But oil floats, it sticks to things (like birds and mammals), it makes anything that has been in contact with it inedible for humans and our feed stock. This means we can't use any of the fish that have been in contact with oil for anything. We can't eat them and we can't feed them to our livestock. I doubt they could even be used as a fertilizer. It's probably lethal for any kind of fish anyway, as it tends to clog up their gills. And just to make it a bit more tricky, it reduces the amount of sunlight that can be used by algae - i.e. it ruins the entire bottom of the food chain.

But again, we're only talking 800 m^3 a day. But oil doesn't lump together until it has become tar. Until then it tends to lay in the upper 0.002 mm [wikipedia.org] of the water table (given enough room, which is clearly available in the Gulf) when it's really thick. So now we're looking at 800 m^3 but only 0.002 mm deep. This gives us an area of 400 km^2.

So, each day we're covering a 400 km^2 (154 miles^2) with a relatively thick layer of oil every single day. This has been going on since April 20th. That's 20 days, so 4,000 km^2 which is the same size as Rhode Island.

And just to make it a bit more fun ... it's not just an oil slick the size of Rhode Island drifting towards the Gulf coast. No. They've been trying to set it on fire, so now it's a wall of fire the size of Rhode Island drifting towards the Gulf coast.

Re:Pimp My Disaster (1)

mortonda (5175) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051498)

Got a source for that claim? I find it interesting, and the press often enough screws up on the scale of things, but... you can see the oil slick from the accident but not from the river. So where is it?

Re:Pimp My Disaster (2, Interesting)

welcher (850511) | more than 4 years ago | (#32053702)

First, there isn't around 10000 barrels of oil coming out of the Mississippi every day in any sort of concentrated form. Second, 5000 barrels a day for 30 days is 150,000 barrels, comparable to the 250k barrels spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Finally, they've no idea how much oil is really coming out (the wsj says today [wsj.com] possibly 25000 bpd are coming out) and BP says it will take between 55 and 90 days from now before they can attempt to plug it, even then it is only an attempt. So this is quite likely going to be the worst oil spill ever in the USA. I'd say it'll make quite a significant difference to quite a large area for quite a long time.

Re:Pimp My Disaster (1)

AHuxley (892839) | more than 4 years ago | (#32053886)

I think tourist, fishing interests, locals, EPA, university students, green groups ect would notice any direct leaks and tell the press?
Unless the Gulf is some national sacrifice area why would this be allow to mess up quality productive and protected US coastline?

Kevin Anderson's "Ill Wind" (4, Interesting)

wygit (696674) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050468)

Did this plot

http://www.amazon.com/Ill-Wind-Kevin-J-Anderson/dp/0765357763/ref=tmm_mmp_title_0 [amazon.com]

"When a panicky oil company tries to clean up a major spill in San Francisco Bay by dropping genetically engineered oil-eating microbes on it, the little organisms go berserk and start devouring most of the world's long-chain polycarbons (gasoline, plastics, etc.). "

Re:Kevin Anderson's "Ill Wind" (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32050574)

It was actually a really good book. Thanks for mentioning it.

and when there's no more oil left ... (1)

porky_pig_jr (129948) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051554)

these little critters start devouring the overweight gamers for their fat.

Not sure if this is a good or bad end of the story, though.

Adding nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium? (1)

mr_mischief (456295) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050486)

Really? They want to put nitrogen fertilizer down to clean up the beach environment?

So, let's harvest a bunch of coal and natural gas and put a bunch of energy into refining it into fertilizer.

Then, let's put it on the beach and in the shallows where it can help the bacteria break down the oil into fats and acids. That and the excess runoff of nitrogen fertilizer should really help with the algal explosion and resulting fish and sea plant dead zone to come.

So instead of having oil in the shallows of the gulf, we can have tons of dead sea life releasing fats and carbon dioxide into the water, further fucking up the environment and acidifying the water. And to get there, we need to process more fossil fuels to clean up these fossil fuels. While fertilizer can be made without fossil fuels, IIRC it rarely is at this point, at least in the US.

Also, TFA says that if we didn't have natural bacteria eating the oil that we'd be knee deep in the stuff. If oil is that abundant and all we have to do is get to it before the bacteria get it in the sea water, why the hell are we worried about peak oil again?

Fish? (1)

santax (1541065) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050532)

Fish consist for a big part of oils... What will the bacteria do them? Someone might know this?

Re:Fish? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32053880)

Er. I'm no biologist or oil expert, but I'm reasonably sure that fish oil and crude oil are very different.

If not, I'd like to know where my salmon gasoline is. CHEVRON WITH OMEGA-THREE!

Re:Fish? (1)

santax (1541065) | more than 4 years ago | (#32053916)

Opel Omega-3?

Dawn Dishwashing Liguid (2, Funny)

Low Ranked Craig (1327799) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050638)

The single-handedly saved the world from the Exxon spill. I saw it on TV so it must be true!

Containment (2, Insightful)

Cyclloid (948776) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050686)

What ever happened to those chains of floats used to encircle a spill and contain it? True, it is huge now but what about earlier when it could have been manageable?

Re:Containment (1)

PSandusky (740962) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050980)

Not so much, I imagine. Those are a lot more effective with small spills already on the surface... this time, it's moving up from below, where it can cover a wider area as it rises. Skimmers and floats can help, but they're not a prominent solution for something this large. It's like putting a band-aid on a severed artery.

Re:Containment (3, Informative)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051576)

True, it is huge now but what about earlier when it could have been manageable?

You think that wasn't the very first thing they did after putting out the fire? There was no "earlier when it could have been manageable", the pipe broke off about 5-10 feet above the sea floor, which is well over a mile below sea level. Do you realize the kind of dispersion you get with that? It spreads out for tens of miles before it even hits the surface.

It's also an emulsion, which does not corral as well as oil sitting on top of water - an emulsion sits at the top, since there is oil in it, but not really on the top like pure oil does, since there is a lot of water in it too. They've got 30-40 miles of boom out there now to try and contain it and it isn't good enough to keep some of it from hitting the coast.

Re:Containment (1)

Abcd1234 (188840) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052910)

And if all that weren't enough, the weather hasn't been cooperating. Steady winds have produced choppy waters, which means the booms have been overwhelmed.

FUNGUS. Paul Stamets has solved this problem. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32050714)

Paul Stamets at TED, 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save The World [ted.com]

"Battelle Laboratories and I joined up, in Bellingham, Washington, there were 4 piles saturated with diesel and other petroleum waste. One was a control pile, one pile was treated with enzymes, one pile was treated with a bacteria, and our pile we inoculated with mushroom mycelium.

The mycelium absorbs the oil. The mycelium is producing enzymes — peroxydases — that break carbon-hydrogen bonds. These’re the same bonds that hold hydrocarbons together. So the mycelium become saturated with the oil, and then, when we returned 6 weeks later, all the tarps were removed, all the other piles were dead, dark, and stinky. We came back to our pile, it was covered with hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms – and the color changed to a light form. The enzymes re-manufactured the hydrocarbons into carbohydrates — fungal sugars.

But something else happened, which was an epiphany in my life. They sporulated, the spores attract insects, the insects laid eggs, eggs became larvae. Birds then came, bringing in seeds, and our pile became an oasis of life. Whereas the other 3 piles were dead, dark, and stinky, and the PAH’s — the aromatic hydrocarbons — went from 10 thousand parts per million to less than 200 in 8 weeks. The last image we don’t have — the entire pile was a green berm of life. "

This is truly profound. This soil was not only cleansed of diesel fuel, but returned to a viable healthy ecosystem that attracted other forms of life to re-colonize it.
Can't recall exactly how, but an oceanic solution was touched on during the talk as well.

Re:FUNGUS. Paul Stamets has solved this problem. (1)

pclminion (145572) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051216)

I agree that Pleurotus is a most precious species of fungus.

The problem is that the saprophytic fungi species which do so well at consuming raw hydrocarbon cannot survive in sea water. Oyster mushrooms will consume everything from pulp waste to coffee grounds to dead wood to diesel fuel but they need a friendly environment to do it in. Stamets didn't discover this, he was just the first person to test it on a large scale and publicize the results.

pressure (1)

roman_mir (125474) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050848)

There is the fundamental problem of drilling in the ocean, never mind what government thinks it can regulate and what an Oil driller thinks they can handle, the pressure from the 5000 feet of water/soil is huge, it pushes the light Oil out of the reserve and up, I wonder if it is not possible for the opening to widen into something gigantic, like a crater that doesn't just trickle the oil as it is doing now but is gushing it out through some enormous opening a few hundred meters wide.

How much Oil is there underneath that water and rock right now, does anybody know? What is the worst case scenario if all of it is pushed to the top?

Re:pressure (1)

roman_mir (125474) | more than 4 years ago | (#32050866)

more importantly, what happens if there is an asteroid that is about to hit the Earth in a year's time, can we still rely on the ocean Oil drillers to help out, was Bruce Willis available for a comment?

Re:pressure (1)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051762)

Actually the high pressure from the water column helps keep the oil in the reservoir. You've got to keep in mind that it's not a bubble, it's a sponge, and even if it were it can't just shoot out without something else taking its place (because it's spongy it takes longer for something else to move in). The relatively small hole and the 6,000+ feet of water exerts an enormous amount of pressure on it. Obviously not enough to stop the flow by a long shot, but if this were a surface well the oil would be shooting out 10 times as fast.

More than likely what caused this well to blow out in the first place was a high pressure natural gas pocket, which was way too much for the amount of drilling mud they were using to keep the oil in the pipe. See, if you've got oil pushing up at 10,000psi, you put enough drilling mud down the hole to equal the pressure, as you go down the pressures increase and you add more mud. Hitting an unexpected NG pocket, though, is disastrous, because these will be under 20,000-25,000psi, which literally shoots the mud and any oil above the pocket. When this happens, you clamp the emergency shutoff valves and everything should be ok, particularly if you managed before your column of mud escaped the pipe.

Re:pressure (1)

IdolizingStewie (878683) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052056)

It doesn't make sense for it to have been an overpressured gas pocket, because they weren't drilling, they were done cementing. Any such pocket should have been hit and dealt with when it was initially drilled through. We've got to be looking at either a mechanical failure or human error. Rather than mud in this case, there was cement at the bottom and I would assume brine above it and a closed valve at the top holding the rest of the necessary pressure. Combine a bad cement plug and somebody opening the wrong valve and you've got a problem. Add in BOP issues and you've got a huge problem.

Ah, the fun... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32050964)

Familiar tale: First, microbes to eat the oil. Then small fish to eat the microbes, bigger fish to eat those fish, then sharks (with lasers) to take care of those. Of course, we can't have laser-armed sharks around, so just poison it all.

No they can't as it is (1)

dbIII (701233) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051090)

High concentrations of oil kill the stuff.
It's a great approach for small amounts of oil but doesn't work with a big thick slick.
Oil companies use oil eating bacteria to treat storm water runoff in oil refineries - so yes they have heard of this stuff.

Hurry with green energy ... (1)

sourcerror (1718066) | more than 4 years ago | (#32051866)

... the microbes will eat all our oil!

"Unclear?" (3, Informative)

Huntr (951770) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052364)

At this point it's unclear how much of an environmental threat oil spreading from the BP spill will cause

Actually, it's pretty clear. This likely will go down as the worst environmental disaster in US history, in terms of its environmental and financial impacts. Estimates [wsj.com] say it's leaking 1 million gal per day. That means we're just about at EVE [wikipedia.org] already. It will take at least a few months to get another well drilled and this one capped.

In that time, LA and other Gulf oyster and shrimping fisheries are going away. That's $2.5-3 billion to LA per year. Coastal wetlands are going to be devastated - can't scrub the plants, have to burn the wetlands to clean it up. Hundreds of species of wildlife will be impacted. Their marine and estuarine habitats will be severely harmed. And we haven't even discussed the impact to beaches and Florida's $3 billion Gulf Coast tourism industry, yet. Hope the slick/tar balls don't hit the Loop current and end up in Miami Beach or even Daytona.

This is bad, folks.

Sangamon's Principle (1)

axl917 (1542205) | more than 4 years ago | (#32052858)

Forget it at your peril.

Why don't spills like this happen naturally? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32052962)

I was under the impression that oil sits underneath the ground in pools, and we (as in mining companies) drill through the earth and suck out the oil.
So why, during earthquakes and the like, don't the oil reservoirs crack open and release oil into the ocean? And if they do, how does nature deal with it?

Won't be as helpful as we would hope (1)

Tim99 (984437) | more than 4 years ago | (#32053550)

The majority of oleophilic bacterial tend to break down longer-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons. Generally these bacteria do not break down aromatic and alicyclic hydrocarbons. The materials that are left behind, like polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are generally more toxic (Many PAHs are carcinogenic). The toxic materials tend to be shielded from the environment as they are normally dispersed with the other less toxic hydrocarbon constituents of crude oil. Unfortunately when the rest of the hydrocarbons in oil are broken down by bacteria the PAHs and other toxic materials are more likely to be dispersed in water.

This generally means that the environment is exposed to a smaller of amount of pollution, but the pollutant is more toxic - The toxic material is eventually broken down by oxidation and photo-degradation processes.

solutions (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32054316)

So what are the possible ways to get the well capped quickly?
I haven't seen reports on what is being tried.
Are they out of ideas?

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