Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The "Natural Oil Seep" Controversy

There's been some natter on the net lately about natural oil seeps, which conservative media outlets have been pouncing on as a means to diminish the public perception of the environmental damage BP has inflicted. FOX News' Trace Gallagher recently repeated the debunked myth that "more oil seeps through the ground off the coast of California than is ever spilled out there."

As Jamie Friedland eloquently notes:

The water in one location can only degrade so much oil at one time; an oil spill goes far beyond overwhelming the ocean's natural oil-coping mechanisms. And remember, the oil from all those natural seeps escapes year-round. Yes, the Gulf can degrade small amounts of oil within 5 days, continuously. But that oil-disposal capacity is always already in use, year-round. So any additional oil spilled does not follow that time line. It lasts much longer and has a much greater impact.

So, in conclusion, the Gulf has a limited ability to deal with oil that seeps out slowly and is widely dispersed. But those capabilities are constantly in use. This spill is gushing massive amounts of oil into one place. Marine ecosystems cannot cope with that assault. And don't forget the toxic dispersants that are accompanying the toxic oil, and the fact that most of the oil is still underwater, where it remains "fresh" (which, like "natural," does not mean good here) longer because it weathers more slowly there.

It's true, there are natural spots in the ocean floor that release tiny trickles of oil, but that doesn't somehow make the Deepwater Horizon incident any less of a big deal, nor does it serve to nullify the importance of the video of oil oozing from undersea cracks. Why? Because the presence of the cracks themselves in an area where we already know a great disturbance has occurred, heightens the potential for further disaster, as Admiral Thad Allen explained to the Washington Post:

"I would be cautious about putting any kind of kinetic energy on that well head, because what you may do is create open communication between the reservoir and the sea floor."

Admiral Allen made a similar warning during a C-span interview on May 26, adding that putting undue pressure on the well could result in oil seeping through cracks and through the seafloor, "and then be uncontrolled until the reservoir pressure equalized with the hydrostatic pressure; I think that's a risk that's too great to take a chance on, myself."

Even if these cracks in the seafloor existed before the BP explosions - and we don't know that they did - and even if they were already seeping oil, the underground disruption that BP has caused make what Admiral Allen fears possible. The distance between a vast undersea oil reserve and the ocean is already tenuous in a natural oil seep, thus the presence of one at the BP explosion site is not good news. Furthermore, these seeps caught by the ROV camera seem more active and more constant than most natural ones.

The presence of these oil-seeping cracks in the vicinity of the BP explosion site makes for greater potential disaster regardless of whether they were created by said explosion or were a pre-existing feature.