Friday, June 11, 2010

Remediating the Gulf Oil Spill Disaster

Among all the things being used to treat the oil spill in the Gulf, I have not seen much about “bioremediation”. That is the use of oil-eating microbes to convert it to something harmless.

This is a technology that I personally know could work. A few years ago, I worked for a local Waco firm in the environmental field. One of their standard responses was bioremediation.

On the internet is a video from 20 years ago, in which the State of Texas used oil-eating microbes to clean up a tanker oil spill in Galveston Bay. This is better than absorbents, because the oil is eliminated in-place, with nothing to pick up for disposal.

I researched bioremediation to see what was available, and how best to use it. There are many firms nationwide offering commercial oil-eating microbes, and these are natural, not genetically-engineered.

I am no expert, but, from that research, I did get a sense for what works and what does not. First and foremost, these microbes work best on surfaces: oil floating on water, or oil still on the surface of soils.

That means bioremediation is ineffective if (1) the oil has soaked down into the soil, or (2) has been dispersed down into the water. That first means you cannot delay treatment for oil coming ashore on a beach or wetland, and the second means that you cannot use “dispersants”, which cause the oil to break up and migrate downward into the water.

Dispersed oil is not remediated or removed, simply relocated to where it is not visible, and to where bioremediation, booms, skimmers, and absorbents are all ineffective. In other words, dispersants act to make the damage to the environment worse, in part by hiding it!

Now, the EPA told BP to use a different dispersant, not to stop using dispersants at all. In effect, the EPA advocates using what it considers to be a “proper” dispersant, which actually makes the problem worse, but in an “acceptable” way!

My research says that the physical state of the microbes, and the additives included with them in the commercial products, do make a significant difference to effectiveness. But those issues are well-understood, so they should not hold back the application of oil-eating microbes to the open-water Gulf, or to any shoreline areas contaminated by oil.

I think I like bioremediation best, because the oil really is “destroyed” in-situ by being converted to microbe waste products, in turn non-toxic to the rest of the ecosystem. It is also self-limiting: once the oil is gone, the microbes die for lack of food.

No mess to pick up afterward, it seems to happens over days-to-months-not-years, and it’s cheap. You can spray it from an airplane or a boat. It makes good common sense.

So, I have two very serious unanswered questions:

(1)Why were we not doing this the first week of this crisis?

(2) How come the EPA did not demand this?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Plenty of Blame to Go Around for the Disaster in the Gulf

The oil rig explosion has led to the greatest environmental disaster this nation has ever suffered. Crude oil now stretches almost halfway across the Gulf of Mexico.

Over one month into this, we still have two or three months to go before a relief well can be drilled. The fishing industries, and all the beach-related tourism industries, will very likely be destroyed.

How long? People are still finding tar balls on Texas beaches from the Ixtoc-1 blowout off Yucatan in 1979. The current disaster is far larger: the livelihoods of millions could be destroyed for a generation or more.

This is not the first American oil well drilled beyond where human divers can go. This is just the first one to “go bad”.

Offshore drilling at any depth requires a permit from the Minerals Management Service (MMS). One requirement is a report explaining what the company proposes to do about any conceivable accident, and why the government should believe that they can do it.

From what I have read and seen, BP’s 582-page report was not worth the paper: I think everyone now knows they are actually “making this up as they go”. Clearly, they did not take very seriously their disaster-management responsibility.

MMS was specifically charged with verifying the adequacy of these disaster plans. Clearly, they failed. But, beyond that failure, why should we believe in the adequacy of any of the disaster plans submitted by any oil company?

I am not happy with federal emergency responses, either. This is not the fault of the President and his administration (current or previous), but it is the fault of the massively slow career bureaucracy.

Case in point: delaying construction of off-shore sand berms, because they might have some undefined future ill effect. We already know that the oil coming ashore unhindered will most definitely have a disastrous effect. Absolutely brain dead stupid!

An order from the President could have broken this bureaucratic logjam, because they work for him. Neither this President, nor the previous one, issued the critical command when the time was right.

So, here is my specific list of suggestions to keep this from happening again:

1. Remove both the liability limits and the statute of limitations. Faced with the true costs, they will pay more attention to safety, prevention, and preparedness.

2. Use two blowout preventers on each well, as the Europeans do in the North Sea. The compounded probability of containing the accident is much higher.

3. For wells beyond the reach of human divers, require that the main well and a relief well be drilled at the same time. If the worst happens, the relief well could be completed in days, not months.

4. Spend federal money now developing sand berms, better absorbents, and better boom technology, so that emergency response in the future is much more effective and a lot faster.

5. Issue executive orders immediately to get these bureaucratic agencies moving very much more quickly, perhaps even anticipating these disasters. No more Katrinas.