Tactics and Techniques for Tackling the Oil Spill

A boom floats in the oil-soaked water: AP Photo/The Sun Herald, William Colgin)

How do you attack an amorphous floating blob of muck in the ocean? That’s the question BP officials and US Coast Guard members are faced with every day since the oil leak began on April 22. Officials attempting to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil slick released by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion have tried a number of options with only limited success.

The only long term solution appears to be drilling a relief well into the same oil-bearing rock as the original well. At that point, a process of displacing oil with water, filling the leak with mineral mud and then covering the mud with concrete can begin.

Still, while the plan may sound foolproof, a successful operation could take months since the new drill target is only seven inches wide. Officials have described the process akin to trying to thread a needle in the dark with your toes. Even if BP scores a direct hit on the first try, it could take up to two months to drill through the layer of rock.

A disheartening New York Times article points out an Australian attempt to drill a relief well in a similar situation took five tries and ten weeks to close up the leak while oil continues to steadily flow into the water.

In the mean time, more temporary techniques are being utilized and discussed.

Hundreds of thousands of feet of boom are already in place along the Gulf Coast used as floating barriers to contain oil and prevent it from reaching shore. In theory, the booms will corral oil and can be placed where needed most, such as in front of highly vulnerable habitats or along valuable coastline. When used correctly, booms can even drag oil to different locations in the ocean where it can be quarantined until removed. This floating technology, however, is designed for calm waters, not the five foot swells that have rendered booms partially ineffective.

High waves simply wash oil over the top of the booms and have washed some ashore. Inclement weather also hinders attempts to burn off the oil, although for the first time since April 28, fire crews are seeing calm enough weather on May 5 to restart controlled burns.

Chemical dispersants had been used to some effectiveness on the surface of the water and two promising underwater tests have shown positive results for dispersants used near the origin of the leak. The surfactants break down the oil into small droplets that can be broken down by natural processes easier. The oil, once dispersed, is also far less likely to stick to wildlife and habitat.

The safety of the dispersants themselves, however, is under question as accurate assessments have not been made yet due to poor weather.

Leading bioremediation expert at the Berkeley Lab Terry Hazen warns chemical dispersants could just make things worse. “While dispersants provide an immediate effect in terms of making you visualize that the oil is dispersed, there’s a number of different things that can happen that might be more problematic,” said Hazen in a phone interview. “Dispersants themselves can be quite toxic to some organisms and they haven’t necessarily tested.”

In addition to the potential toxic aftermath, dispersants could add nutrients into waters creating algal blooms that could shade out essential sunlight for coral and sea grass.

Hazen, however, admitted dispersants could be used in certain situations, like if the oil is quickly approaching a sensitive ecosystem, but he says more tests should be done before the chemicals are used over widespread areas.

The dispersants have never been used at this depth before and what it comes down to is choosing between “the devil you know versus the devil you don’t,” said Linda Greer, a senior scientist with the National Resource Defense Council, in a Washington Post article.

“You’re going to have to look at each situation and pick when to use [dispersants] carefully,” said Hazen. “It’s going to be an ecological nightmare anyway. It already is. Now we need to be careful we don’t make it worse.”

BP spokesperson Curtis Thomas defended the tactic saying, “When you weigh out the consequences between the dispersants’ negative effect and letting the oil reach the shore, the dispersants always win.”

In the end, it becomes a decision between protecting marine life from potentially toxic dispersants or keeping the oil off the coastline. "You're putting something into the water, it's less toxic than the oil, so it's a trade-off," Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen told the Washington Post.

Dispersants or not, US Fish and Wildlife Service is already keeping a close eye on the approaching spill to decide what measures need to be taken to keep birds and coastal wildlife out of the oil as it reaches land.

Propane cannons blast noise through the air to scatter birds out of potential danger and are only one part of a "very elaborate contingency plan not yet been used on this spill," said FWS spokesperson Phil Kloer in a phone interview. "We are very much studying the situation hour by hour figuring out what needs to be done." 

Kloer was unable to comment on potential negative effects the sound blasts could have on wildlife and at what point these tactics would be implemented, but Kloer assured whatever strategy they use, it is in the best interest of the animals. "We are entrusted with preserving our wildlife resources," said Kloer. "It is something we may use when we feel the need to use it." 

It’s easy to feel like the outcome of the oil spill is out of your control. Unless you plan on hand delivering dispersants (ill-advised) or sailing to the oil slick with a torch to set it aflame (extremely ill-advised), there’s not much to do except wait and hope for the best.

Although, there’s always the option to donate your hair to be used as boom sponges that soak up oil…

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”