The BP Gulf Oil Disaster-Send in the Microbes!
As readers of my Extreme Science blog know, I try to bring to people’s attention the environmental disaster Earth’s ocean’s face if humanity doesn’t radically change its relationship to our planet. Here are some past posts on the subject:
The ongoing disaster and calamity of the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico is yet another example of the risk our fragile ecosystems face when human beings treat the Earth as a resource to be exploited and not the only home we humans have ever known, as Carl Sagan famously put it in his “pale blue dot” talk.
Without An Ethical Vision of our Planet, We and Countless Beings Are Doomed
Let me be clear. I understand that humans need to utilize Earth’s resources in order to live and survive. The critical issue is: what values, ethics, and vision of the planet do we bring to our use of resources?
For most of mankind’s technological history, the Earth has been treated as an unlimited natural resource, with little regard to the short or long-term consequences of human actions. This ignorance and disregard has now reached “critical mass.” Entire ecosystems, like our reefs, and the viability of the oceans themselves are now at risk. Around the world, mass extinctions are taking place. Runaway climate change could lead to the death of tens of millions of humans and the end of civilization as we now know it. And yet powerful vested interests continue to manufacture doubt, although the scientific consensus is very clear.
This pro-science blog is not anti-technology when technology is in service to a genuine and deep morality that understand the inter-connectivity and interdependence of all living things on this planet. But BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill graphically illustrates what happens when gigantic multinational corporations call the shots on their impact on the environment and basically dominate the governments of the world.
When Giant Multinationals Run the Show It’s a Recipe for Disaster
BP (British Petroleum) is a case study of all that’s wrong with how we allow multinationals get away with, literally sometimes, murder. After the Texas City refinery explosion five years ago, several investigations launched in the aftermath of the refinery explosion concluded that BP’s aggressive cost-cutting efforts in the area of safety, the use of outdated refinery equipment and overworked employees contributed to the blast.
The power and influence of Big Oil to determine or influence political and environmental policy can be seen all over the world, usually with disastrous results. Here in the US, only a year ago, for example, the United States Interior Department exempted BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico from a detailed environmental impact analysis. It was just Big Business as usual.
How BP Has Thwarted Independent Scientific Scrutiny
From the beginning, independent scientists have been requesting the right to monitor the amount of oil that is actually being released per day, but BP has resisted every effort to be monitored. As recently as May 15, a BP spokesperson said “no” to all such monitoring, claiming that efforts to calculate the flow are “not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”
Since the independent scientists aren’t asking BP to make any calculations or to interfere with the response effort, this answer seems disingenuous at best. Happily, you don’t have to have the permission of BP to do good science! Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, analyzed videotape of the leak using a technique called particle image velocimetry. He estimated oil flow rates at between 56,000 to 84,000 barrels per day—or equivalent to one Exxon Valdez spill every to 2.4 to 3.5 days!
A second, “smaller leak” has been estimated to be releasing 25,000 barrels per day. Independent scientists are now suggesting that the total size of the leak may well be in excess of a staggering 100,000 barrels per day! This would make the Deepwater Horizon oil spill be one of the largest oil spills in history and perhaps the worst man-made disaster yet recorded. The size of the spill expands hugely each day:
With the failure of the latest attempts by BP to stop the rupture, it now looks like it might be late August, nearing the peak of the hurricane season, before the rupture can be stopped. In the meantime, oil will continue to gush out at the rate of one Exxon Valdez spill every two to three days! As the mass of oil expands, oceanographers are also increasingly worried that the oil will get caught up in what is called the Loop Current.
As a highly informative article at Environmental News Service explains: “The Loop Current is an area of warm water that comes up from the Caribbean, flowing past the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Gulf of Mexico. From there, it curves east across the Gulf and flows south parallel to the west Florida Coast. As it flows between Florida and Cuba it becomes the Florida Current as it moves through the Florida Straits, where it joins the Gulf Stream as it travels up the Atlantic Coast.”
Can you imagine what will happen if all this oil gets caught up in the Loop Current and then enters and pollutes the mighty Gulf Stream? The entire East Coast of America is at risk if this happens, not to mention vast ecosystems. Clearly, the longer stopping the oil eruption takes, the greater the environmental disaster, which is already unprecedented.
How Science Can Help—Send in the Microbes!
The long-term solution to the problem of Big Oil multinationals domination of the world’s economies and governments will require people everywhere to take use the power of democracy and protest to bring real change. But this is a science blog, not a political blog. What more can science do to help mitigate this growing environmental disaster? Capping the rupture is critical, but so is lessening the environmental damage. We actually have powerful allies that can help us, but we have to think small, very small!
In fact, we need to think microscopic! Because so far, we have so far failed to bring to bear on this disaster the tremendous potential of an ally that comes from nature herself—the oil-eating microbe. Meet Alcanivorax borkumensis—one of the good guys:
This microbe, and genetic variants, has the remarkable ability to digest oil, rendering it harmless. Because of its successful use in past oil spills, I’ve been surprised that we hadn’t heard any officials talking about using this amazing microbe to fight the spill in an environmentally sound way. Then, someone sent this great “homemade” video to me, and it really lit a fire under me to get the word out and try to alert people to how this technology could literally help save the day:
As the video’s caption says, “The Texas Land Office and Texas Water Commission successfully used ‘oil eating’ microbes to clean up large oil spills in just weeks. Microbes hunt down and eat the toxic oil and leave only a biodegradable waste that is non-toxic to humans and marine life. Marshland and beaches were pristine again in just weeks—not years like the Exxon Valdez spill. This is the answer to save the seafood industry and all the precious creatures we are about to kill.”
Urge Officials To Act Now! Every Individual Action Matters!
I urge you to send this video and the information in this blog to as many people as you can. Write your representatives in Congress. Write President Obama. Call the networks. Spread this video all over the internet and share with everyone you can think of. Oil-eating microbes aren’t some silver bullet, but the science behind their use is good and has been proven effective in real life disasters. Even though there are technical problems to work out in utilizing oil-eating microbes, few options offer as many benefits as this technology. As I said, as a science writer, I have been wondering why these amazing microbes haven’t been used already (I think I know why, but don’t get me again started on the moral derelictions of Big Oil!)
Officials need to work fast on this because with the hurricane season upon us, the potential for this ocean environmental disaster to become an unprecedented inland disaster is huge. Can you imagine what will happen if a Category 3 or greater hurricane comes into the Gulf and not only picks up the surface oil, but churns up the deeper oil and send a deadly, toxic spray ten, twenty, even thirty miles inland? It will make any US, or even world, environmental disaster pale in comparison.
This MSNB video explains the potential for disaster with hurricane season:
If you want to learn about the biology of our microbe hero go here:
And here are some less technical articles giving the background science on oil-eating microbes and their use. I especially recommend the website for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which has some terrific, very accessible articles.
Knowledge is Power – We Can Work Together to Bring Change
My hope is that this article will provide people with the information and the scientific background to pressure officials to put our little oil-eating friends to work for us on this horrendous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Please do what you can! Every single letter, phone call, and fax can make a difference. Let’s put put the microbes to work and let nature and technology together for us.
Although we are absolutely interconnected with this planet and utterly dependent upon it, our planet’s fate has never been more in our own hands.