The BP oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico presents challenges that have been faced before, but it also presents challenges that are new and unprecedented, making any bio-remediation and cleanup something that will require innovation, creativity and even inventions that do not exist at this time.
The first unique challenge is in the sheer volume of oil that is being released. At somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 barrels a day, the oil is the first problem. There are also a variety of gases, including methane and benzine, that will continue to emit in unprecedented quantities. No one can predict when the methane will escape, and the benzine and other aromatics will gas off in different ways, depending on water temperature and other changing factors.
The unique features of the Northeastern Gulf Of Mexico add even more complexity. There is no other place in the world that has the geographical or biological features of the intertidal biomes and habitats of the Gulf. Cleanup will involve dealing with delicate land that has been disappearing in astonishing amounts every year, as it is only held together by the grasses. Hurricane force winds will push the oil inland, much farther than would happen in less volatile climates. The oil will increase the surface oceanic temperatures, possibly causing far larger and more violent storms than would normally happen.
As a result, the traditional ways of remediating an oil spill will be challenged on a far greater basis than ever before.
First is dispersing.
This has proven to be a curse as well as a blessing. Dispersants cause the oil to spread with spectacular speed and, with some components, in all directions at once. Dispersants break down the oil solids much faster than nature can allow, but they also allow gases to vent off more quickly in ways that will sicken living things that breathe in the atmosphere. The remaining solids are far more likely to bond into clumps or “tarballs” that can either sink to the bottom or travel along in the currents at any depth of the water.
Dispersing also allows other components of the oil to travel along in separate surface and deeper current systems, sometimes in microscopic form where it is incredibly difficult to detect the dimensions or locations of the “invisible oil”.
The good news about dispersing is that it breaks apart the oil, allowing better conditions for oil eating microbes and other living things that metabolize hydrocarbons. The dispersant may contain the microbes or naturally occuring life forms are enhanced when the oxygen, temperature and pH of the water are not completely changed into uninhabitable conditions.
Second is hydraulic and mechanical removal.
Actor Kevin Costner is having a banner year with an invention that he has been working on for a time. His invention uses one of the hydraulic methods: vacuum and centrifuge separation, to clean an enormous amount of water in a single day.
Third is capture and containment.
This has been the major effort so far. Various engineering feats have been attempted to cap the well, with suggestions that the well be capped, suffocated with junk, bombed with nuclear weapons and even more fanciful ideas that would simply seal the well opening for good.
Capture seems to be working, but with untold damage to the atmosphere. Other rigs have arrived in the area to capture as much of the escaping oil and gas as possible and to put it in large capacity tanker ships. The gas is now being constantly burned off, and one ship is hosting oil that is being burned on a constant basis. One problem is that each cache of oil has its own composition. In this case, there is a high level of methane, a dangerous and volatile gas.
Fourth is relief well drilling to stop the flow in the future.
This fantastical idea involves digging two wells, one of which was ordered by the government, which will intersect the defective well, and to inject a material that will plug the well. The problem with this lies in the damaged, blown out, and now tilting nature of the wellhead. This method actually worked in a catastrophic deepwater spill off the coast of Mexico, but the conditions today are unique, since British Petroleum sidestepped so many safety and construction standards.
The well head is developing an increasingly alarming tilt that may make any relief well into the equivalent of sending a drinking straw to intercept another drinking straw, underwater and at mile deep temperatures and pressures, at the same time that the drinking glass is breaking down. This operation offers little hope if the well head completely breaks down under the unrelenting release of massive pressure from what has been called a “state-sized bunch of oil.”
Fifth is long term bio and other remediation, long term water cleaning and long term collection and processing of solids.
Eventually, whole industries will spring up and many jobs will be created through implementation of such ideas as algae in plastic containers that float, allow the algae to metabolize the hydrocarbons and release clean water through one way valves. Bio-remediation through modified forms of the bacteria that eat hydrocarbons can work when the proper water conditions are present and there is not out of control growth of the life forms.
But now, the sheer volume of the oil requires gross and massive methods that extract oil and water, then separate the two, returning clean water to the gulf. Other initial methods should have been to create massive physical barriers to tidal and intertidal areas. The relatively new and complicated oil spill modeling systems provide warning, but no ways of physically cleaning oil from sand, grasslands, soil and riparian biomes.
Given that the oil increases the water temperature in the Gulf, there may need to be some form of massive cooling that would help to prevent hurricanes from reaching unprecented size and power, since the warm waters of the Gulf are notorious for serving as hurricane “food”.
Given the unique and low lying nature of the land in the Northeastern Gulf Of Mexico, if oil is pushed deeper inland, even more innovation will be required to remove and remediate from freshwater riparian zones and land that is deep inland. Hurricanes will force incursion of oil, dispersant and vapors into urban, cropland, industrial, tourist, protected, and other human habitats. That means that technology developed for marine, or saline conditions must be adapted to brackish and freshwater conditions.
In summary, a massive number of people have given ideas that range from the irresponsible and ridiculous, as with using a nuclear weapon, to the sublime, as with the more effective centrifuge and biomass water cleaning options. This situation will provide a lot of opportunity by simply not going away for the foreseeable future, even if the damaged and deteriorating well head is capped.
It must be noted that British Petroleum operates another deep water rig, Atlantis, less than 100 miles from the current disaster and a former employee has already warned that the same misconduct and conditions apply there.