It Isn’t Gone After All: New UGA Study Finds “Massive Flux” of Methane Gas at BP Well Site


More bad news this week for the “Mission Accomplished” crowd: A new University of Georgia study shows that the massive amount of methane and other gases (500,000 tons) released during the BP spill didn’t just vanish after all, and instead created zones with “extensive and persistent depletion of oxygen” as microbes degrade the hydrocarbon gases.

The UGA study sharply contradicts the glowing optimism of earlier government reports that implied gases from the spill have simply escaped into the atmosphere or have been gobbled up by microbes. Instead, says the report, gases are trapped in very cold layers of water deep under the surface.

Remember the “magic microbe” story? The Wall Street Journal began its report thus: “Bacteria made quick work of the tons of methane that billowed into the Gulf of Mexico along with oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, clearing the natural gas from the waterway within months of its release, researchers reported Friday.”

The all-clear messaging experts will have a hard time with their usual “junk science” and “only a perception” dismissals on this latest finding. The report comes from the highly respected UGA professor of marine sciences, Samantha Joye, and is being published by the journal Nature Geoscience. The co-authors are Ian MacDonald of Florida State University, Ira Leifer of the University of California-Santa Barbara and Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Their point is that the Deepwater Horizon disaster went beyond oil to include hydrocarbon gases like methane, pentane and others. Apparently nobody even bothers to track these materials – which tells us a lot about our regulatory standards – but Professor Joye and her team figure the public should know if giant clouds of hydrocarbon gases are floating around underwater, depleting the oxygen supply.

The study explains how the ocean depth at the point of blowout, nearly a mile down, creates high pressures and cold water that can entrap “released gaseous hydrocarbons” in a deep layer of the water column.

This latest finding makes clear (again) that you can’t accuse government agencies, like NOAA, of being inconsistent: Once again, they are lowballing the release estimates. The new study is a groundbreaking in that it is the first time researchers have calculated the gas discharge from a spill “in terms of equivalent barrels of oil.”

According to reports on the study, researchers “…calculated a gas discharge that’s the equivalent of either 1.6 to 1.9, or 2.2 to 3.1, million barrels of oil, depending on the method used. Although the estimate reflects the uncertainty still surrounding the discharge, even the lowest magnitude represents a significant increase in the total hydrocarbon discharge.”

“These calculations increase the accepted government estimates by about one third,” said Ian MacDonald of FSU.

The researchers explained that the 1,480-meter depth of the blowout (nearly one mile) is highly significant because deep-sea processes (high pressure, low temperature) entrapped the released gaseous hydrocarbons in a deep (1,000-1,300 meters) layer of the water column.

It’s the latest in a long, long line of independent research correcting the national all-clear narrative. You can find more here:

Check out how the gas-all-gone story played out in the WSJ here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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