Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Report on the Impacts of Deepwater Horizon

I've blogged before about an informal "2nd Friday Symposium" held by the River Basin Center here at UGA.  I wasn't able to attend the most recent event, so I asked Land Use Clinic student Greg Raburn to report.  Here's his summary (and accompanying culinary notes):

The convivial meeting started at 4:00 p.m., but, by the time I was able to get out of class, burn the roof of my mouth on a hastily-heated corn dog, and drive to the River Basin Center, the discussion had already begun  The room, which had the appearance of some type of student lounge, was nearly full, and the speaker, who must have been Professor Chuck Hopkinson of Marine Sciences and Director of the Georgia Sea Grant, with beer in hand, was describing the statistics and findings displayed on the projection screen.

He noted that while Savannah, as befitting one of the top U.S. seaports, was being monitored for contamination, Georgia’s southeast coast was not.  The oil, if or when it appeared on Georgia’s beaches, he stated, would probably look like tar-balls (which were essentially asphalt, he explained) or micro-droplets, and he and his group had made recommendations to Congressional staffers for detecting the presence of the oil and monitoring it.  He said much of the Gulf data was being collected by robotic “Seagliders,” manufactured by iRobot (the makers of the “Roomba” robotic home vacuum cleaner).  The gliders were designed to “glide” to the bottom of the ocean, collecting data from their surroundings, and then rise to the surface and transmit the data.  In addition to recommending using Seagliders off the Georgia coast, his group additionally recommended using fluorescent sensors, doing tar-ball counts, monitoring “sentinel” organisms, and utilizing satellite monitoring to collect additional data.

The next part of the discussion centered on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s leaked press release which had stated that 74% of the released oil was “gone.”  The report naturally raised the question:  if 74% of the oil was truly gone, where did it go?  The press release claimed that 25% of the oil had dissolved or evaporated, 16% had been naturally dispersed, 8% had been chemically dispersed, 17% had never entered the water (captured at the surface), 5% had been burned, and the cleanup efforts had captured 3%, and therefore only 26% of the oil remained in the ocean.

Professor Hopkinson’s group decided to evaluate the data themselves.  The first thing they did was discard the figure for the 17% of oil that never entered the water; if some oil never entered the water, they felt it was misleading to include it on a report about the status of the oil in the water.  Professor Hopkinson’s group also figured in “degradation,” which, based from data from the Ixtoc oil spill off the coast of Mexico in 1979, was estimated at about 4%-8%.  His group ultimately concluded that the oil was not “gone,” but that most of it had simply changed into a form that rendered it uncollectable.

The University of Georgia and the Georgia Sea Grant testified before a [Georgia] Senate subcommittee regarding Georgia’s vulnerability to the oil spill.  The Senate subcommittee charged the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to develop an oil sampling plan.  Three things were to be sampled:  water columns, hard bottom, and fish.  If oil were found in these things, then two additional things would then be sampled:  sediment and hydrodynamics.  Unfortunately, I am unable to provide further details on this part of the discussion, as it went well beyond my limited knowledge of marine science and ecology.

As a side note, Professor Hopkinson also observed that British Petroleum (BP) is selling or has sold off its terrestrial U.S. wells, put its shallow water wells up for sale, and is currently expanding its deepwater drilling in areas with little regulation, such as Africa and Brazil.  He suggested this could have been a counterproductive consequence of the recent U.S. sanctions on BP and the restrictions on deepwater drilling.  He pointed out that the well currently being drilled in Brazil, will be at almost twice the depth of the Deepwater Horizon.

Professor Hopkinson closed by saying that the University of Georgia Sea Grant website on the oil spill could be found at oilspill.uga.edu, with additional information at www.southatlanticseagrant.org, www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com,  and www.restorethegulf.gov.

In conclusion, I found the science and statistics of the discussion to be rather interesting.  I had to glean the meaning of much of the technical language from the context in which it was used.  The symposium was definitely geared toward someone with more of a background in environmental and marine science than myself, but the group was open and friendly, and a small variety of refreshments were available – including a bowl of dried, multicolored, tubular things that, in size and shape, resembled McDonald’s French Fries.  I had to try one.  It tasted kind of like a pretzel.  I still have no idea what it was.

Jamie Baker Roskie

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/land_use/2010/09/a-report-on-the-impacts-of-deepwater-horizon.html

Conferences, Environmentalism, Georgia, Oil & Gas, State Government, Water | Permalink

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