Putting This New Phase of the Oil Spill into Context

-originally posted on The Recovery Room 6 August 2010

An August 4 New York Times article entitled US Finds Most Oil From Spill Poses Little Additional Risk, clearly leads us to believe that only 26% of the officially estimated 4.9 million barrels (one barrel equals 42 gallons so that’s 205.8 million gallons) of oil spilled into the gulf is still at large.

There is a handy graphic that is based on the findings of a government. Lets breakit down. NYT graphic.gifThe first glaring thing is the neatness of these numbers. Removed 25%, evaporated or dissolved 25%, dispersed 24%, and still at sea or on shore 26%. How conveniently round they are.

So, starting from the top, the gray portion that represents oil physically removed from the Gulf adds up to 25%. Fair enough. They may have had their shit together enough to capture 35 million gallons of oil as it spurted up the straw they managed to insert into the well 45 days after it began. Sucking oil out of the planet is their business after all. In-situ burn operations account for the removal 10.26 million gallons. That means that 85,470 US tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere while the 830 skimmer vessels have only managed to remove an additional 6.2 million gallons. The skimmers likely used more oil than they cleaned up in the process of motoring around in the gulf thus adding that much more carbon dioxide to the mix. Prognosis thus far: rosy.

The evaporated or dissolved portion is where things start to get fuzzy. These shifts in physical state result in two very different outcomes although neither is positive. Lets say that 25% did indeed evaporate. That means that there are now 54.45 million more gallons worth of volatilized petroleum derivatives, toxic and otherwise, floating around in our atmosphere. That’s the better of the two scenarios. The second is that the 54.45 million gallons dissolved into the marine environment. When you dissolve salt into water is it gone? I think not. The oil has not disappeared just because it may have changed forms. It is still lurking in the environment. The reality is that a combination of evaporation and dissolution has happened and I highly doubt that both of them together could have displaced that much of the mess.

Moving along, 24% of the oil is thought to have been dispersed. I do believe that. A fair amount of the oil was definitely naturally broken up into small droplets as it spewed out of the wellhead under immense pressure from the oil reserve below and the miles of seawater above. If this graphic is correct, chemical dispersants had an effect on 8% of the oil spilled. The two million gallons of toxic Corexit that were added to the already devastated ecosystem was only effective on 8% of the oil? You mean to tell me that we’ve turned the Gulf of Mexico into a colossal science experiment for a chemical that is only effective at an 8:1 ratio? Totally worth taking a two-dimensional problem that we know how to fix and turning it into a three-dimensional problem that is out of our realm of capabilities to rectify.

So let’s get this straight here. If 205.8 million gallons came out of the well, 53.5 million gallons are at large in their crude form, 49.39 million were dispersed, 51.45 million gallons has evaporated or dissolved, and another 51.45 million have been physically removed then how much is left in the Gulf? The Merriam-Webster definition of dispersed is, “distributed or spread over a wide area.” It doesn’t mean removed. Those millions of gallons, the equivalent of 78 Olympic sized swimming pools worth of oil are spread throughout the water column. Let’s say that of the evaporated and dissolved portion, half of it actually dissolved. That’s another 39 swimming pools worth in the water and the rest in the atmosphere with the myriad tons of carbon dioxide released through burning and the motoring of response vehicles. By my rationale, at least 63% of the oil is still out there. That’s 129.7 million gallons of Southern Louisiana crude oil adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. It makes me sleep soundly in the wee hours of the night to know that our government officials say that 192 swimming pools worth of oil “pose little additional risk.”

For more info relating to the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem and its wildlife see my newest AlterNet piece,
Just how badly have we screwed up the Gulf ecosystem?



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