Nature’s Key Gulf Cleanup Role After Oil Spill Touted by Researchers

Tuesday, 09 Apr 2013 12:35 PM

By Michael Mullins

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Nature appears to have a self-defense mechanism when dealing with ocean oil spillage, according to researchers at the American Chemical Society conference this week.

On Monday, researchers revealed details about oceanic micro-organisms that degrade oil in relation to the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

They reported that sea bacteria minimizes, but not eliminates, the harmful effects oil has on the area’s eco system.

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"The bottom line from this research may be that the Gulf of Mexico is more resilient and better able to recover from oil spills than anyone thought," University of Tennessee researcher Terry Hazen said in a statement. "It shows that we may not need the kinds of heroic measures proposed after the Deepwater Horizon spill, like adding nutrients to speed up the growth of bacteria that breakdown oil, or using genetically engineered bacteria.”

Hazen added, “The Gulf has a broad base of natural bacteria, and they respond to the presence of oil by multiplying quite rapidly." 

According to the researchers, the gulf’s substantial amount of oil-eating micro-organisms exist because as much as 1.4 million barrels of oil seeps into the body of water from the Earth's crust annually.

Following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, Hazen said there was a boom in the oil-eating bacteria population, reported US News and World Report.

"The fact is, for millions of years you have had a million barrels of oil a day going into the Gulf of Mexico from natural seeps — it's encouraged [the evolution] of organisms that have the ability to degrade," Hazen said.

In their presentation, the researchers also said that chemical "dispersants," used in the clean-up effort appeared to have an adverse effect, interfering with and slowing down the ocean’s own bacterial response to the oil spillage.

Despite the quicker than expected cleanup, researchers could not say what the long term effects of the spill would be in the Gulf.

"Fish and bacteria and plankton and everything else were swimming through that oil, and we don't know what long-term effects that'll have,” Hazen told the BBC.

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"There was a lot of oil out there for 84 days . . . [The Gulf’s] had some pretty dramatic traumas, and I'm worried how much the ecosystem can actually tolerate," said Hazen.

In 2010, approximately 5 million barrels of oil was spilled into the Gulf of Mexico for an 87 day period from a Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig owned by British Petroleum (BP).
Eleven crew members died in the accident that injured an additional 126 workers on the rig.

BP was subsequently hit with $4.5 billion in fines as well as criminal charges for the role they played in the accident.

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