What happened to the oil and gas released at Deepwater Horizon?

The Gulf of México is a very large body of water and for most of us thousands of miles away. With all of the scandal presently occupying the public about the papers, the politicians and the policemen, it is easy to forget that for three months just more than a year ago the Deepwater Horizon’s well leaked what turned out to be more than four million barrels of gas, oil and similar hydrocarbon substances into the Gulf of México. What has become of it?

Scientists already have a pretty good idea of what happens when oil and gas leak into the sea at or near the surface. There has never been a deep water leakage on the scale of the Macondo well at Deepwater Horizon, so scientists have had an opportunity to compare what happens in deep water leakages to what we know happens with surface leakages.

During spills on oil and gas at or near the surface of the sea we know that those hydrocarbon compounds which are easily water soluble are volatile and evaporate quickly into the atmosphere, where they add to the greenhouse gases but leave the sea water relatively clear of them, except for those hydrocarbons that are dissolved in sea water. Dissolving and evaporating are competing processes and neither is desirable in environmental terms.

In deep water leakages scientists have observed that significant amounts of water soluble hydrocarbons remain dissolved in sea water at depths and therefore do not evaporate. It is not known whether these complex hydrocarbons remain dissolved or biologically break down into their constituents and remain harmless, but the general view is that these soluble oils and gases (such as methane) remain dissolved in plumes of sea water.

Those hydrocarbons that do not dissolve in sea water tend to be transported to the sea surface or deposited upon the sea floor. We do not know what proportion goes up and what proportion goes down.

So in essence there are three processes that affect the spillage of deep water oil and gas wells. First, some of the released hydrocarbons escape into the atmosphere. Secondly, some are dissolved in the water and held either at deep water or mixed with the water near the surface. Thirdly, non soluble sediment collects at the surface or at the sea bed. All of these processes are bad for the atmosphere or bad for the oceans and therefore bad for us. We have to ask, is the oil and gas we get really worth it?

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