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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Oceans Can't Absorb the Oil -- Here's Why

Homebrew fermenting in carboyAt one point in my life, I thought brewing beer would be a great hobby. And it was. The brewing itself was great, as was enjoying the beer afterward, but the bottling was a pain. It turned out I didn't like that at all, so I eventually quit making beer. Still, I'm glad I did it, because I learned a lot of things that I still use today. One of those things is the knowledge that beer yeast commits suicide. The yeast eats sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. The problem is that alcohol and CO2 aren't very good for yeast and they basically change their own environment so much that they can't survive in it. I keep coming back to this in my own mind as a warning to humanity -- if we're not careful, we'll be killed by your own waste. Yeast cells are mindless, we don't have that excuse.

But another, less philosophical lesson is that certain natural processes can be halted by the process itself. The beer yeast are only capable of fermenting so much sugar; if you want much stronger beer than normal, you need a different strain of yeast. Champagne yeast, maybe, or a strain developed for barley wine. If not, all the yeast will die off before the job is done and your beer won't be any stronger, just sweeter.

All of this is just a way to explain the problem with oil plumes from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, natural bacteria will eventually consume the oil -- unless that oil is too concentrated. In this situation, the bacteria creates an environment where it can't survive. And neither can anything else. In terms of helping sea life, you aren't. You're just making an already unsurvivable environment worse.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times spoke with Dr. Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia involved with studying the problem:

"There's a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water," said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. "There's a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column."

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.


Dr. Joye said the findings about declining oxygen levels were especially worrisome, since oxygen is so slow to move from the surface of the ocean to the bottom. She suspects that oil-eating bacteria are consuming the oxygen at a feverish clip as they work to break down the plumes.

Some bacteria, described as "anaerobic," don't need oxygen to survive. But this is clearly not the case here. If it's consuming oxygen, it's using it. The bacteria are creating a dead zone, where even they can't survive. There's too much sugar in our beer. And, of course, this bacteria is dying off before the job is done. This is a double whammy; oxygen in these areas of the sea is depleted and, of course, the toxic oil remains.

This all goes a long way toward explaining the latest stupid thing that BP CEO Tony Hayward has said. In addition to saying that, compared to all the water in the world, his gusher was "relatively tiny" and that workers sickened by the chemical dispersants and oil probably just have food poisoning, Tony also says there ain't no damned plumes.

Associated Press:

Disputing scientists' claims of large oil plumes suspended underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, BP PLC's chief executive on Sunday said the company has largely narrowed the focus of its cleanup to surface slicks rolling into Louisiana's coastal marshes.


Hayward said that oil's natural tendency is to rise to the surface, and any oil found underwater was in the process of working its way up.

"The oil is on the surface," Hayward said. "There aren't any plumes."

This is, of course, BS. In response, Rep. Edward Markey told AP that BP stands for "Blind to Plumes." Luckily, even without my handy explanation of the problem with having plumes of oil in your beer, the American public isn't buying all this BP spin. A Gallup poll finds that, although people believe the Obama administration has reacted poorly to the situation, they also fault BP's response. In fact, more fault BP than the White House. A lot more. Where 53% say the response from President Obama was poor to very poor, 73% say the same of BP. BP is now as popular as Dick Cheney. I'd imagine both Cheney and the oil company have roughly the same fans.

Still, it's BP who has the equipment to deal with this. Personally, I believe that all the company's American assets should be seized and its presence in this country dissolved forever. But we all know that's never going to happen. So we have to rely on BP to get the job done. But their rampant dishonesty and sophistry isn't helpful. Barring what I consider the sanest solution -- the corporate death penalty -- it seems the wisest thing to do from here on out would be to leave no decision at all to BP. While they're onsite, dealing with the problem they created, they shouldn't even be able to decide what they have for lunch. This seems to be the case now, but it should've been the case all along.


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