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Why an enduring U.S. oil spill can't be stopped
JAY GORY, MANAGING EDITOR, science
When the Taylor Energy oil drilling platform toppled over in September 2004, its 500-foot-tall metal legs twisted and bent as the looming structure sank to the seafloor. Hurricane Ivan's pummeling waves had unsettled the muddy ground, which spelled doom for the 20-year-old rig. It lay in a mangled, chaotic heap. And then, it started leaking oil. Over 14 years later, oil continues seeping to the surface in the Gulf of Mexico. And as geoscientist Oscar Pineda-Garcia, an expert in satellite-based sensing of oil spills events, concluded last month in a 91-page federal court-ordered report, there's been a chronic release of "at least" 300 to 700 barrels of oil each day (12,600 to 29,400 gallons). This vastly eclipses previous government estimates of between 1 to 55 barrels per day. The leaking oil could "easily" continue leaking for decades, Sean Anderson an environmental scientist at California State University Channel Islands who conducts oil spill research, said in an interview. This raises questions about whether anything can be done to clean up the oil, or stymie the stubborn leak. "There’s a perpetual petroleum ooze," said Anderson. "People [in the Gulf] have come to see that as being normal." An oil sheen in 2015 drifting from the site of the former Taylor Energy oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Louisiana coast.Image: Gerald Herbert/AP/REX/ShutterstockAfter 14 years of leaking, the Taylor Energy mishap is threatening to become one of the country's worst-ever oil spills — rivaling 2010's Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest in U.S. history. "It's one thing to say you're leaking one or three barrels a day. But at 700 barrels a day you’re getting into some interesting numbers," Stan Meiburg, the former Acting Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview.  "If — and that's a big if — the rates have been occurring at that rate for 14 years, you get a big number," added Meiburg, who is now the director of Graduate Studies in Sustainability at Wake Forest University. SEE ALSO: This scientist keeps winning money from people who bet against climate change There is, of course, potential that Pineda-Garcia's final estimates are higher than reality, but he noted that the surface oil he and his team measured did not account for oil trapped under the water, so the rate of leaking is likely "higher than these calculations," the report concluded.  Sopping up the oil There's no expectation that the leaking will stop on its own, so the Gulf should expect Taylor Energy oil to continue collecting on the ocean's surface. This carries little-understood health implications for residents living near cleanups; it's deadly to wildlife; and the oil can taint beaches. But cleaning up a daily, perpetual spill is daunting.  "Your options are really not that great," said Meiburg. "You can try and burn it off," he noted, use long booms to fence in the spill, or employ chemicals to disperse the oil. But dumping chemicals into the water carries new environmental burdens.  "It raises the question if the cure is better than the disease," Meiburg said.  Any blown well in deep waters is a great burden to clean up — and in some cases even find. "One of the most difficult challenges with an ultra-deep (+150 m deep) water blowout is that it is difficult to contain," Jonathan Whiting, a civil engineer at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said over email.  "The escaping oil doesn’t float straight up to the surface, but gets moved around by changing underwater currents," said Whiting. "The oil could eventually surface miles from the source, and some oil will never reach the surface at all. Emergency responders can’t clean up an oil spill that they don’t know where to find." A boat's wake passing through a Taylor Energy oil sheen in 2015.Image: Gerald Herbert/AP/REX/ShutterstockThe one thing oil has going for it is that it's a natural, organic substance, and there are microbes in the ocean that consume weathered, spread-out petroleum.  But with a relentless, high-volume leak, these natural recovery processes can't always occur. "With a continuous spill constantly leaking, different seasonal currents could bring the oil to many different beaches in the vicinity," noted Whiting.  Cash for a cleanup? It's unclear, however, how much funding there will be for regular cleanups.  After putting aside hundreds of millions of dollars for environmental recovery, Taylor Energy has sued the United States to get $423 million back.  In its lawsuit, the oil company argues, incredibly, that “no evidence exists of a present and ongoing leak from any of the wells at the MC20 site [the oil platform site]." Taylor Energy wants to dissolve its $423 million trust that guaranteed payment for the costs of plugging the leaking wells, and other environmental remediation. The company — now defunct and sold — has already spent a whopping $435 million on containing the leaks — including hauling the heavy platform to the surface. Because the U.S. is now mired in a lawsuit, the Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) all declined to comment on this story. However, NOAA did note that it is undertaking a "Natural Resource Damage Assessment" process to determine if public natural resources have been harmed by the leaking oil.   If a U.S. federal court determines that Taylor is still on the hook for the enduring oil leak, there are effective and realizable "near future" cleanup solutions, said Seshadri Ramkumar, a professor in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at Texas Tech University. He suggests the use of cotton — pure, largely unprocessed cotton.  "The science is there — the resources are there," Ramkumar said in an interview, emphasizing that it's a realizable solution — though one that will require money.  "One gram of cotton can absorb 30 time its weight in liquid crude oil," Ramkumar found. The pure cotton can be integrated into a mat or a long boom, he said. It eliminates the need to dump chemical dispersants into the sea, and natural cotton doesn't sink.  For now, Taylor Energy contractors have experimented with putting domes over areas where they've identified leaking oil, which allows them to then collect the oil. "This is a very new technique with mixed results," noted Whiting. Plugging the leaks Mopping up the oil, of course, wouldn't be necessary if the wellheads were sealed, hundreds of feet under sea. Capping these wells, however, is profoundly complicated, especially in the case of the Taylor Energy collapse. Taylor Energy had drilled 28 separate wells into the seafloor, like punching holes into the ground. Some of them have been found and contained, but over half haven't been located.  In 2010, during the dramatic Deepwater Horizon spill, the Deepwater blasted 134 million gallons of oil into the ocean. But 87 days later, British Petroleum (the company responsible) capped the leak. The Taylor Energy collapse, however, comes with other, unique challenges.  "This particular well is a really different situation from the Deepwater Horizon, and in some ways much more complex," noted Meiburg. Plugging Deepwater Horizon — though it was no simple feat — required capping just one well. Engineers were able to drill into the metal pipe and pump sealant into the leaking hole.   That's not the case with the Taylor leak. A year after the Deepwater Horizon spill,  public beaches along the Louisiana coast remained closed.Image: Bevil Knapp/EPA/REX/ShutterstockWhat's more, according to The Washington Post, the federal government prohibited Taylor Energy from boring through the mess of collapsed metal and deep sea mud — as that might penetrate a pipe and make matters significantly worse. Anderson, however, believes it's the industry's power and influence in the Gulf — not engineering limitations — that's allowed the oil to continue flowing. "To be fair to them, it [plugging the leak] is a challenge," said Anderson. "It is a pain to get to, but it's completely within our realm of doing." Oil and gas companies aren't all inherently nefarious, noted Anderson. But the Gulf is filled with oil industry — and leaks. It's simply an ubiquitous economically dominant industry.  "Nobody wants to criticize the [Gulf] oil and gas industry — you can’t say anything bad about oil and gas," said Anderson. "There's oil right and left, everywhere."  In California waters, these spills get cleaned up. In 2015, during the Refugio spill, experienced crews from Louisiana came to California help clean up the viscous pollution. But these Gulf workers weren't too impressed with California's spill, which caked beaches in black oil. It was tiny, compared to Gulf standards. "Those crews would laugh at our cleanup efforts," said Anderson.  So off Louisiana shores, the oil still flows into the sea — sometimes for 14 years with no clear end in sight. "Louisiana made a deal with the devil," said Anderson. WATCH: Ever wonder how the universe might end?       read more
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