What Happens to Dispersed Oil?

by Michael on August 10, 2010 · 0 comments

I’m sure that by now you’ve heard all about the surprising lack of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. In the time since BP finally capped the well, the amount of oil on the surface has fallen dramatically. So where did it all go?

According to a recent CNN report, NOAA is estimating that:

  • 25% of the oil has evaporated or dissolved
  • 25% of the oil has been captured, skimmed, and/or burned
  • 24% of the oil has been dispersed (naturally or via chemicals)
  • 26% of the oil remains to be dealt with

The implication here, of course, is that we’ve taken care of roughly three-quarters of the problem. On the one hand, that’s a rather sad state of affairs. After all, that remaining quarter is still a huge amount oil.

On the other hand, things are much worse than they seem. In fact, even if we take the numbers above as gospel, only about 25% of the oil has actually been actually removed from the environment.

Believe it or not, the ocean is full of life below the surface – or at least it used to be. Dissolved oil is still toxic to many marine organisms, and its full impact likely won’t be known for quite some time.

And that dispersed oil? It’s still mostly out there. It’s just been broken into small droplets and sent into deeper water. Remember those huge underwater plumes of oil? They’re almost certainly a byproduct of chemical dispersants such as Corexit.

The idea behind dispersing the oil was to reduce its impact on wildlife by keeping it out of wetlands. Dispersing oil is also thought to help speed its degradation. These are admirable goals to be sure, but they largely ignore the impact of the dispersed oil on the undersea life.

And of course, this all ignores the effects of the chemical dispersants themselves, which are known to be toxic. Here again, the full effects aren’t likely to be known for some time, as it will take time for things to ripple their way up the food chain.

The bottom line here is that things aren’t always what they seem. Just because we can’t see as much oil on the surface doesn’t mean we’ve solved the problem. In this case, out of sight definitely shouldn’t be out of mind.

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