Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Updated: On the Gulf Oil Spill & Natural Oil Seeps

Updated 5/5/10: NASA reports that Scientists recently found they could see naturally occurring oil slicks in satellite photos: "Hu and colleagues then defined a geographic area of the western Gulf and obtained MODIS images for the month of May for nine consecutive years (2000 to 2008) from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The team reviewed more than 200 images containing sun glint, and found more than 50 with extensive oil slicks. "

Check out this NASA satellite image of a natural oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico:

The BP Oil Spill (Pat has a good set of links ) is a tragedy in which 11 men lost their lives, and 17 were badly injured. In their families and hometowns, as well as the fraternity of the oilfields, they'll be missed a lot longer than the clean up and lawsuits will take.

It is bad news for the area until clean up efforts can get a handle on things. It will be a mess for a while, and the most significant hardship will be for those who make their living in affected waters. They will likely go through some hard times before they find alternative locations to fish, or their home waters rebound.

This is not, however, the end of the gulf as we know it. And it is certainly no reason to limit, much less stop, further oil production in the Gulf.

Undersea oil seeps are a naturally occurring feature of the environment, including the ocean floor. According to the Institute for Energy Research, natural oil seeps account for 62% of the oil pollution in North American waters, while Oil Exploration and Production account for only 1% (one percent).

This "natural seepage of crude oil from geologic formations below the seafloor is estimated to exceed 47,000,000 gallons in North American waters and 180,000,000 gallons globally every year. "

Anthony Watts of wattsupwiththat.com reported last year that natural petroleum seeps off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, that releases more than 20 tons of oil every single day - and has done so continuously since the Stone Age. The researchers who've quantified the volume of seepage say the amount there now is equivalent to 80 Exxon Valdez oil spills:

"A new study by researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) is the first to quantify the amount of oil residue in seafloor sediments that result from natural petroleum seeps off Santa Barbara, California.

One of the natural questions is: What happens to all of this oil?” Valentine said. “So much oil seeps up and floats on the sea surface. It’s something we’ve long wondered. We know some of it will come ashore as tar balls, but it doesn’t stick around. And then there are the massive slicks. You can see them, sometimes extending 20 miles from the seeps. But what really is the ultimate fate?

The Minerals Management Service of the Pacific OCS Region has an excellent overview of the phenomenon:

"Even today, natural hydrocarbon seeps along the California coast continue to be more than an idle curiosity. Two small underwater containment structures positioned near Goleta Point, placed to collect natural seepage, have alone captured over 4 billion cubic feet of natural gas since 1982: enough natural gas to supply the needs of over 25,000 residential natural gas users each year.

" Native Americans of the coastal areas of California, like the inhabitants of the Old World, incorporated naturally occurring hydrocarbons into their cultures. The earliest accounts of oil and gas seepages in California come to us from the seventeenth century annals of the European explorers. Native Indians, including the Chumash, Yokuts, Achomawi, and Maidu used oil, tar, bitumen and other natural substances from the seeps for ceremonial and recreational purposes.

"In 1793, during the travels of English explorer James Cook, his navigator, George Vancouver, recorded in his journal that they had anchored off of Goleta. Vancouver reported that the sea was "... covered with a thick, slimy substance, which, when separated or disturbed by any little agitation, became very luminous, whilst the slightest breeze, that came principally from onshore, brought with it a very strong scent of burning tar." He continued that "... the sea had the appearance of dissolved tar floating on its surface, which covered the ocean in all directions within the limits of our view."

Ultimately, any oil spill needs to be avoided - but those that do occur happen because of accidents, and even the largest ones never come close to releasing the amount of oil the earth itself leaks naturally into the world's oceans.

Oil is a fluid, unlike hard minerals, it doesn't necessarily have hard borders. Mexico is drilling in its areas of the Gulf, and Cuba has signed agreements with both Russia and China , as well as other countries, for offshore drilling within its "Exclusive Economic Zone" of the continental shelf - which in some places could come closer to Florida's coast than the US rules allow our own drilling.

With these new situations, we cannot hope to "save" that oil that lies within our territories for some rainy day, nor can we wait until we think we need it to start the long hard work of drilling a successful well.

We need to go forward, with confidence. It's always time to drill.

Update #2, 05/24/10: Men who make their living on the water and the coasts in the real, natural world understand how nature works. Guys, you are awesome. I say don't wait for permission, take charge, spread the hay and send the bill to the BP, with a copy to Al Gore. (Hat tip and thanks: commenter Seven Percent Solution on May 24, 2010 at 12:11 AM on Hot Air's Quote of the Day) Also, don't miss Pat's new set of links at And So It Goes in Shreveport.

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