Saturday, November 2, 2013

Oil and microbes

I thought it might be wise to explain to readers in some more detail the difference between the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout.  The subject is interesting mostly because invisible microbes played a huge and under appreciated role in the BP spill; But there are a few political lessons to be learned along the way.

The above pictures are pictures from the Exxon Valdez spill.

The reason you didn't see pictures like the above ones when the Deepwater Horizon well blew out is because there weren't any. Very little, if any, of the oil actually reached the shore in any quantity; and relatively few marine creatures were killed.  Although a great deal of hyperbole was used to describe the disastrous effects to marine life, media struggled to find any actual examples of dead animals. 

To contrast, estimates are that as many as 250,000 seabirds alone were killed by the Exxon Valdez spill.

 The Exxon Valdez spill took place near the shore, in an area densely populated by animal life. It is, in addition, an environment that is cold,  and oil congeals, with relatively few microbes that can eat it. Metabolisms consequently run much slower; and because of the nature of the area, it has not evolved a microbial infrastructure designed for the consumption of oil. The results were not only disastrous but long-lasting.

Microbes in the much warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico have been evolving for tens of millions of years in concert with the natural oil seeps in the floor of the Gulf,  which deposit as much as 1 million barrels of oil per year into its marine waters. Tens of millions of years is an awful long time for bacteria; it involves trillions upon trillions of generations. Oil, dispersed in warmer marine waters, is an excellent energy source if you learn how to use it; and if there is anything we know, it's that bacteria will find a way to exploit just about any energy resource they come across. Consequently, the waters of the Gulf are rich in bacteria that can feed off dispersed oil. 

A small cadre of marine biologists is aware of this fact; but the vast majority of people aren't. Had the oil in the Gulf been left to its own, some would've washed up on shore — and, certainly, there would have been some problems. The vast majority of it, however, never showed up anywhere; efforts to collect it were in vain, and only a tiny amount of it was burned off. 

Probably more than 95% of the oil was dispersed into the water column in extremely dilute form, where bacteria consumed it. These bacteria rendered it essentially harmless to the environment. Less than a year later, marine biologists and environmentalists alike were scratching their heads trying to figure out where all the oil went. It wasn't long before people realized that bacteria had probably eaten it. Dire predictions to damage to the fisheries turned out to be wrong; in fact, fisheries did much better the year after the spill, because fishermen stopped fishing for a significant period of time while the well was blowing out. Ironically, the resultant drop in pressure on fish populations allowed fish stocks to increase, not decrease. (Remember, it's perfectly okay for fishermen to kill all the fish they want; but not oil companies.)

Human beings, of course, always follow the ancient adage: when in trouble, fear, or doubt, run in circles, scream and shout. So during the spill, the media raised a daily hue and cry about how incredibly disastrous and awful it was; government agencies, in conjunction with BP and other third-party contractors, raced around spraying extremely toxic chemical dispersants all over the place, trying to break up the oil. The dispersants, it turns out, were actually far more toxic than the oil itself, and it seems that they did a lot more damage than the oil did, since the oil was something that occurs naturally in the environment in the first place, and the dispersant is not. There aren't any bacteria that eat dispersants.

 The reaction to the spill, in other words, was pathologically stupid. It did, however, generate an enormous amount of sensationalism and gave people the appearance that something meaningful was being done, when in fact nothing of the kind was taking place at all. The whole cleanup operation was very much like the security lines we stand on in airports today, where TSA employees triumphantly confiscate tubes of toothpaste to prove to us that we are being kept safe from terrorists.

Failure to properly understand environmental issues, and overreaction to such problems, is a common issue in America. This is because the media colors the picture so intensely. The public values the opinion of the news media more than the opinion of scientists by a very wide margin; so when scientists try to direct public response to disasters, they are promptly overwhelmed. Politicians, who feed on the news media with a great deal more zeal than any bacteria feed on oil in the Gulf of Mexico, jumped on the situation to exploit it to the maximum extent possible. The response did more damage than the spill itself; yet, two years later, we continue to live in a world where the mythology of the oil spill dominates the picture. It has morphed into a giant feeding trough for the state and federal government to dip their probosces into.  (See also here and here.) The evidence of actual damage is minimal; the demands for reparation are in the tens of billions of dollars. Businesses 50 or more miles from the coast that incurred no conceivable damage from the spill are collecting money from BP.  BP's lawyers are fighting this nonsense; but the shameless shakedown continues. 

I cannot stress enough, conducting matters in this way will dangerously devalue and stain the credibility of future, more legitimate environmental damages claims. Excessive corporate punishment is just as bad as insufficient corporate punishment; perhaps even worse, because it gives corporations a finger to point.

 In the meantime, no one says a single word about all of the nitrogen pollution flowing down the Mississippi River from agribusinesses, who are, let us remember, heavily subsidized by the federal government — 

unlike BP.

 What's really interesting to me is that bacteria have evolved to be so efficient at eating oil. They took what may have been as much as 5 million barrels of oil and sucked most of it up without leaving a drop. This is a truly amazing feat; and it makes us wonder exactly how many other things bacteria are consuming that we don't really think about or even know about. 

The bacterial process drives a great deal more of the recycling on the planet than any other known process; yet we've done little research into understanding how bacteria achieve these feats, or ways in which they might be used to help us in sustainable and natural ways.

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