Study Shows Bacteria have Eaten Giant Gulf Oil Plume

It would seem that no good news can come out of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There is no denying its devastating effect on the Gulf, its wildlife, the shores that border it, and the economies that depend on it. Neither is there any denying that the fallout from it will be felt for years to come.

However, one piece of good news was announced in late August 2010: the giant oil plume in the Gulf, once 22 miles long, over 36 miles deep, and expected to last for months, had become undetectable. It had been eaten by bacteria.

The plume was one of the more horrifying results of the oil spill. In an effort to break up the stream of oil flowing into the Gulf at an alarming rate, BP dumped Corexit 9500, a chemical dispersant, around the gushing oil well. That created the giant oil plume, which remained in the Gulf, hovering about 3,300 to 4,000 feet below the water’s surface, even after the well was capped on July 15th.

Oil eating bacteria naturally live on the ocean floor, in places where oil seeps slowly out of undersea deposits. Wherever shipping traffic is high, as it is in the Gulf of Mexico, these bacteria thrive due to oil leaking out of the ships. That they could help clean up oil spills was already known to Israeli researchers. Oil eating bacteria were once used to help clean up an oil spill on the coast of Haifa. An August 5th article in Natural News reported that the Israeli team had suggested releasing these bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico.

But nature intervened first. A recently discovered species of oil eating bacteria consumed much more oil much faster than any other species had ever been known to do. It was discovered by a team from the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who took samples from the Gulf in May and June 2010, on research vessels funded by BP.

Even as little as a week before this discovery was announced, a study done by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute had shown pessimistic results. The Woods Hole researchers tested the Gulf waters for dissolved oxygen. Based on what was previously known about oil eating microbes, increased dissolved oxygen levels should have been indicative of microbial activity. Not finding significantly greater quantities of dissolved oxygen, they concluded that there wasn’t much bacteria eating that oil.

It turns out that this newly discovered bacteria does not generate much oxygen. For that reason, the Woods Hole team could not detect it with their methods. According to the Lawrence Berkeley researchers, the bacteria have eaten so much of the oil plume that it is practically gone. They claim that their results are not at all influenced by their expedition being funded by BP.

Assuming that this claim is true, it still remains to be seen what the longterm consequences will be. It is good news indeed that oil eating bacteria have broken down the giant oil plume. But we do not know what the increased levels of bacteria in the Gulf will do in the long run. Will the bacteria die back down when they’ve eaten all the oil? Will their presence affect the balance of life in the Gulf, in addition to the devastation wreaked upon it by the oil spill? Only time will tell.