Revolution #231, May 1, 2011

The following is an article that appeared recently on the website

Thick Layer of Oil from the BP Oil Spill Deposited on the Gulf Sea Floor: Government Tries to Evade and Ignore Crucial Scientific Findings—Restarts Deep-Sea Drilling In the Gulf

Less than a year ago, April 20, 2010, the world watched in horror as the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded resulting in up to 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons) of oil per day spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for several months. BP and the government proved unable to stop the gusher of oil for months. At the time of the spill the Obama administration put a temporary halt on off-shore drilling and promised it would not begin until a full assessment of the impact was done and until if was proven safe to resume.

The impact of this massive spill on the environment in reality has only just begun to be determined. Many scientists have warned that the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill (which by comparison spilled up to 750,000 barrels) are still being felt more than 20 years later.

Since the spill was finally capped, the consistent message coming from the federal government has been it's all behind us and by 2012 all the remaining oil will soon be gone. First there was the "Oil Budget" report published by NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] in August 2010 which (paraphrasing) claimed "it's all but over, we've accounted for most of the oil, most of it's gone and what's left is disappearing fast." (for more details on this report, see Around that same time Terry Hazen from Berkeley National Labs published an optimistic report about the abilities of oil-munching bacteria to quickly consume all remaining oil (see Deep-Sea Oil Plume Enriches Indigenous Oil-Degrading Bacteria).

But just recently, a team of researchers led by Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia reported disturbing findings at the annual meeting of the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science]. Joye's team used a deep sea submersible and collected over 250 ocean floor core samples over an area of the Gulf covering 2600 square miles including at the Macondo well site where the spill occurred. A large number of those core samples showed a 4 inch thick layer of oil deposition.

Her talk included photos of dead marine creatures from the sea floor soaked in thick oil: dead crabs and brittle stars—starfish like critters that are normally bright orange and tightly wrapped around coral. These brittle stars were pale, loose and dead. She also spoke of tube worms so full of oil they suffocated.

Joye's team also provided an explanation for how this oil ended up on the sea floor—and it directly involves the bacteria which attack and eat oil. Their data suggest much of this oil may have rained down from the sea surface, fostered by what scientist Samantha Joye calls "microbial spit."1

Kenneth Feinberg, the federal government oil compensation fund czar had stated that based on research he had commissioned he believed the Gulf would almost fully recover by 2012. In response to this, Samantha Joye stated: "I've been to the bottom. I've seen what it looks like with my own eyes. It's not going to be fine by 2012"... "You see what the bottom looks like, you have a different opinion."2

Speaking to Hazen's earlier prediction that microbes would rapidly consume the oil, Joye said: "There's some sort of a bottleneck we have yet to identify for why this stuff doesn't seem to be degrading." At a press conference with Joye and Lubchenco, Hazen did not contradict Joye's findings—saying that his research differs from Joye's because they looked at different places at different times.

Bottom line: massive amounts of the BP oil spill are still there on the sea floor killing marine life crucial to the whole Gulf eco-system. So what is the current policy on deep-sea oil drilling in the Gulf?

Government Policy—Evade and Ignore the Science & Restart Deep Sea Drilling in the Still Devastated Gulf

These crucial findings are not being widely publicized and are not being taken seriously as they should be with the fate of massive eco-systems at stake. They can't be entirely suppressed so they are instead being evaded and ignored. In the driver's seat instead guiding government policy is a systemic compulsion to expand deep sea oil drilling. This same compulsion is distorting how the government presents to the public the reality of what is happening in the Gulf and leading to these attempts to deny and evade crucial firmly grounded scientific findings.

On February 28, 2011, barely a week after Joye's findings were released, the Interior Department announced that deep-sea oil drilling was resuming in the Gulf. A company called Nobel Energy has already been granted a license to begin drilling again in 6500 feet deep waters and more license approvals are not far behind in the approval pipeline.

Unable to ignore Joye's findings, NOAA head Jane Lubchenco, representing the Obama administration, tacitly acknowledged and at the same time attempted to downplay and muddle the significance of these results stating: "it's not a contradiction to say that although most of the oil is gone, there still remains oil out there." No—there is a massive amount of oil out there and it is having a devastating impact on marine life.

And what new measures are in place to insure that such disasters don't occur again? Essentially none. Instead several companies and a new consortium of oil companies are preparing spill response systems similar to those which finally capped the BP well: means to try to cap the next spewing well, means to try to siphon oil up to surface ships and use of dispersants like Corexit. (See for example, Marine Well Containment Company Launches Interim Containment System.)

But Joye's findings show that the use of dispersants, while they may help cosmetically hide the oil from view, have not stopped huge amounts from collecting on the sea floor and devastating marine life.

1. Joye shared underwater images depicting eerie strings of bacterial slime—mucus streamers that ranged from one millimeter to almost two meters long. The key ingredient of the slime is what she terms bacterial spit, a material that, like laundry detergent, helps break apart large oil globules. Such surfactants are secreted by many oil-eating bacteria and render the oil easier for them to digest.

As the sticky slime picks up cells and other debris from the water, it becomes heavy and sinks.

Or that's what appeared to be happening, Joye said. To investigate, her team went back to the lab and added a milliliter of oil from the BP well to a liter of surface seawater that her group had collected from an oil-free part of the Gulf.

After just one day, naturally occurring microbes in the water began growing on the oil. After a week, the cells formed blobs, held together by spit, that were so heavy they began sinking to the bottom of a jar. Two weeks later, large streamers of microbial slime and cells were evident. Brown dots visible inside the mix were emulsified oil.

"This is the mechanism that we propose deposited oil to the [Gulf's] bottom," Joye said.

In September photos taken in areas that had encountered BP oil, these streamers of microbial spit "were all over the place," she said—from the top of the water column to the seafloor. "The stuff we're seeing in the lab forming from the addition of oil is very similar looking to what we see on the bottom."

The mucus streamers are also very clearly distinct from oil chemically dispersed with Corexit. Use of the commercial dispersant by cleanup crews created an oil-water emulsion that "looks like chocolate mousse under water," Joye observed.

When she and her colleagues extracted cores of sediment from the Gulf's spill-impacted zones, the top sediment layers often showed signs of what appeared to be the microbial spit. That layer also was devoid of living animals, forming what Joye called an "invertebrate graveyard." See [back]

2. Here are two recent interviews with Samantha Joye:

New York Times, Revisiting The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (3/21/2011); see

Clip from University of Georgia Video—Samantha Joye/Steve Bell Interview; see [back]

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond