So the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico celebrated its one month anniversary, and new details on the possible true extent are emerging. As an example, this video shows that the dispersants that have been injected at the leak are merely preventing the oil from rising to the surface, instead of dispersing the oil into small enough particles to be degraded “naturally”. Naturally occurring organisms are perfectly capable of degrading petroleum, a property commonly exploited in water-treatment plants. However, given the depth involved the likelihood that any oil-eating bacteria, of which the more common and efficient are aerobic, can actually decompose this oil is slim. And when these bacteria are present, they would quickly consume any oxygen, hitting deep water marine life with the double whammy of toxic oil and no oxygen. There are also some anaerobic bacteria capable of degrading petroleum, but these have the property of producing methane, which is a 24 times more potent green house gas than the carbon dioxide released by aerobic bacteria.
I would say this entire debacle nicely illustrates the need for the precautionary principle to become a guiding principle American industry and regulation. And that in some cases, doing nothing at all may be better than trying something unproven.
On a side note, I’m not entirely impressed by the reporting in that video, it’s a little light on numbers and or other verification of the size of the problem, but I think that’s a factor of the apparent success BP has had in restricting access to information on what is actually happening. Other sources have however pretty much confirmed the presence of these sub-sea oil plumes.