Deep Sea Bacteria Took a Big Bite out of Deepwater Oil Spill

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The tragic 2010 blowout at the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform left the United States and world in shock, as massive quantities of crude oil streamed unabated from the undersea well. Everyone looked on as scientific experts helplessly tried for three months to plug a hole one-half mile below the water surface. The blowout was finally ceased when a new well was drilled into the existing well, providing the necessary pressure relief. But not before nearly 5 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf, causing ecological disaster in the gulf and along the coast. Efforts were made to clean up the oil from the surface, and dispersants were used underwater. However, most contamination could not be collected, and was hoped to be naturally attenuated over years in the gulf through biological mechanisms. A new study from the University of Rochester and Texas A&M found that for five months following the disaster, bacteria in the gulf consumed and removed at least 200,000 tons of oil and natural gas.

Fossil fuels are organic material which can be fed upon by microbes in the environment. The research analyzed an extensive data set to determine not only how much was eaten by bacteria, but how the characteristics of this “feast” changed over time.

“A significant amount of the oil and gas that was released was retained within the ocean water more than one-half mile below the sea surface. It appears that the hydrocarbon-eating bacteria did a good job of removing the majority of the material that was retained in these layers,” said co-author John Kessler of the University of Rochester.

The researchers found that the consumption of oil and gas by bacteria in the deep Gulf ceased by September 2010, five months after the blowout.

“It is unclear if this indicates that this great feast was over by this time or if the microorganisms were simply taking a break before they start on dessert and coffee” said Kessler. “Our results suggest that some (about 40%) of the released hydrocarbons that once populated these layers still remained in the Gulf post September 2010, so food was available for the feast to continue at some later time. But the location of those substances and whether they were biochemically transformed is unknown.”

This study was published in the journal, Environmental Science and Technology

Article by David A. Gabel, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.

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Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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