LETTER: Oil that spilled into the Gulf is hardly gone

Saturday, September 4, 2010 | 5:05 p.m. CDT

White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy Director Carol Browner reveals her ignorance of basic science when she says that most of the oil is gone.

Matter is neither created nor destroyed (with the exception of nuclear reactions). I know the oil is still somewhere and most of it is still in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this oil evaporated; however, it's still oil, just now in a gas form, moving through the atmosphere or condensing back into a liquid and falling to earth.

Some of the oil was intentionally burned. As a result of being burned, part of the oil became water, part became CO2, and part became solid, liquid, or gaseous byproducts of burning. Think of the ashes and creosote you get in your fireplace and chimney after a wood fire—these byproducts are either in the ocean or in the air. They aren't gone.

Some of the oil was dispersed, a word that begins to have profane overtones in my mind. Chemical dispersants were sprayed onto the surface of the ocean where they reacted with the oil. This oil and the dispersants haven't disappeared, they are still in the water or they have evaporated into the atmosphere. We have no way of knowing if these dispersants have made the oil more or less toxic to fish, shrimp, whales, pelicans, or to us. There is no way of knowing how they will change over time or how fast this quantity of chemical soup will move into the rest of the ocean, into the atmosphere or into the web of life that we depend upon.

The oil that has evaporated, burned or been dispersed should be called:"Still there, just harder to track."

Some of the oil has been skimmed. I don't know what they've done with it — it's still a mess for sure and in someone's back yard. We should call this oil "removed to a landfill."

Some of the oil has been metabolized by micro organisms. To the extent that this metabolism has converted the oil and the dispersants into substances like water, carbon dioxide, or oxygen, I'll grant that this oil is gone. To the extent that this metabolism has biologically active metabolites, I'm concerned that the oil is in the "still there and now harder to track" category.

Some of the oil was recovered. I am presuming this is the oil that actually got contained in the cap and pumped to the surface. Maybe this oil is still able to be refined and used as a fuel. It's still not gone, rather it's back in the petroleum processing system.

Only honest and accurate information is useful as we all work together to minimize the effects of this unprecedented environmental event and to prevent other similar events.

Elizabeth Allemann, M.D., lives in Columbia.

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Ellis Smith September 5, 2010 | 9:13 a.m.

This letter showcases the difference between scientific methodology and political sophistry. For scientists and engineers it is just as important to realize what you don't know as what you do know, and never to confuse the two.

Also, some outcomes can't be verified in a short and arbitrary time frame. While that may be distressful to politicians, it's nevertheless true.

We might devoutly wish that Ms. Browner were the only political figure making ridiculous statements. Unfortunately that's not the case.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking September 5, 2010 | 5:22 p.m.

Here is an assessment done on an earlier Gulf oil spill of roughly the same magnitude:

It is notable that the investigators could not find any Ixtoc oil in any of their bottom (benthic) samples a year after the well was sealed.

I find our oil addiction tragic, but I don't let that feeling color my opinion about the biodegradability of oil in the Gulf. It's quite possible that a lot of it has been degraded.

Dr Allemann, do you drive? How much? If you drive a lot, you've contributed to this spill also.


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