Debate has been raging over government claims that only a quarter of the oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by BP remains, but some scientists say naturally occurring bacteria have been eating away at the oil at such a rapid pace that much of it is already gone.
The Times-Picayune reports that a microbial ecologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has had a team of researchers out in the gulf since May 25 collecting water samples.
The team found a significant drop-off in the amount of oil ever since the flow was stemmed in mid-July, and now they can’t find any oil in the ocean (of course much of it has washed ashore, as well.)
Conditions have been “absolutely optimal” for the degradation of oil, said Terry Hazen, head of the Ecology Department and Center for Environmental Biotechnology at the Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division, in an article published yesterday in Science Express.
The type of light crude coming out of the well has a large volatile component that degrades easily, the oil particles are small, the concentrations of oil are low and the water where the plume was located is cold.
Hazen adds that “the bugs in this area have become adapted to using oil as a carbon source” because of regular natural oil spills leaks into the water over the years.
Early on in their research, Hazen’s team found higher concentrations of oil-eating bacteria than expected and even uncovered a whole new petroleum-eating microbe at the head of the pack. Hazen’s study also discovered that as the microbes do their work, they don’t appear to use much oxygen.
On Aug. 4, a collection of government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report saying that just 26 percent of the roughly 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the gulf remained either on shore or in the ocean.
And while Hazen’s research is certainly welcome news, it’s important to note that he conducted his recent research under an existing grant from BP. The Energy Biosciences Institute is a partnership led by University of California-Berkeley that is funded by a $500 million, 10-year grant from BP.
The Times-Picayune consulted Ed Overton, an oil spill expert at Louisiana State University, about the validity of Hazen’s claims, and he said bacteria have great potential to eat oil and that the results of the Berkeley study sounded reasonable.
“This oil is very degradable,” he said. “That’s good news because it means it’s going to go away quicker.”
Still, bioremediation, as the process is called, is not a panacea. Ronald Atlas of the University of Louisville, who has been studying oil-spill bioremediation since the late ’60s, told Newsweek in May that microbes can eliminate only a portion of the compounds present in oil and it can take years.
“This is not like a physical cleanup where I pick it up and it’s gone — this takes some time,” he said.
Story by Darragh Worland, originally published on Aug. 25, 2010 on Tonic