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Earth Science

Around 200,000 Tons of Deep Water Horizon Oil and Gas Consumed By Bacteria 170

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the sludge-monster-rises-from-gulf dept.
SchrodingerZ writes "The University of Rochester and Texas A&M University have determined that in the five months following the Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, bacteria have consumed over 200,000 tons of oil and natural gas. The researched was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (abstract). '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 paper debuts for the first time 'the rate at which the bacteria ate the oil and gas changed as this disaster progressed, information that is fundamental to understanding both this spill and predicting the behavior of future spills.' It was also noted that the oil and gas consumption rate was correlated with the addition of dispersants at the wellhead (video). Still, an estimated 40% of the oil and natural gas from the spill remains in the Gulf today."
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Around 200,000 Tons of Deep Water Horizon Oil and Gas Consumed By Bacteria

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  • by concealment (2447304) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @09:17AM (#41312117) Homepage Journal

    Politics in a democracy involve two sides cheering for their own while doing anything they can to damage the other side.

    Whenever a disaster happens, whichever side that named its underlying cause as an issue makes a huge deal of the event. To gain maximum publicity for their (righteous) cause, they overstates the event and style it as a new coming apocalypse.

    Then months later when the consequence isn't as big as they thought, the event and the issue it represents pass out of public consciousness.

    There's a nasty see-saw effect as a result. We're either full on an issue, or have forgotten it, and our legislators write law accordingly. It's like a society without an attention span.

    • by postbigbang (761081) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @10:02AM (#41312593)

      A narrow view.

      The bacteria digested the oil, but what did they excrete. If they multiplied and now have no meal, they starve, and their carcasses in turn become something else. There was a process applied to the spilled oil by the bacteria. Is the remainder environmentally tenable? None of that seems to have been addressed.

      No measurements have been made of long term effects as of yet, and so we don't know 1) quantity of remaining undigested oil 2) rate at which it can reasonably be digested 3) interim effects on ecosystems in the Gulf at this estimated rate 4) how much remaining oil there is to feed the equation 5) what current fishing rates do to the population, and what might replace the population given these rates, and more.

      Democracy is weighing more than two sides of a question, as there are almost always more than two sides to a question. You're just used to American politics, which have devolved to become polarizing.

      • The bacteria digested the oil, but what did they excrete. If they multiplied and now have no meal, they starve, and their carcasses in turn become something else.

        So... you're saying if we come up with something that eats said bacteria, everything will be fine right? EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE, RIGHT!?!?

        • What might eat the bacteria; what part of which food chain were/are benefiting? What about bacteria excrement? What is that, and how does it help/hurt? What eats oil-digesting bacteria poo? At what rate? To benefit what food chains and ecosystems? That's what's wrong trying to make sense of the report cited; it only serves as a very interesting data point, not something that you can make judgments with easily, if at all.

        • by navyjeff (900138)
          ... That’s the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.
      • Hydrocarbons are hydrogen and carbon. They combine with oxygen to produce CO2. Sugar is the same way: apply oxygen to C6H12O6 and you get H2O (H6O12 becomes 6 x H2O) and C6 + O (C6 + O2 gives you 6 x CO2 if you can find 6 O2). Yes, sugar--food--is basically air (CO2), water (H2O), and sunlight (to strip the O2 off the CO2 and attach the remaining C to the H2O to give CH2O and O2).

        We're dealing with CH4 here or basically C(n)H(2(n+1)) which when combined with oxygen gives CO2 and H2O. News flash: it's

        • Were it that easy. It's not that clean, and contains a number of other products that the refiners will tell you about; the most onerous is sulphur and various metals.

          While it's a lot like sugar (lots of energy to burn), where do these bacteria live in the ecosystem? I mean-- I like the thought of bacteria gobbling errant oil spills, don't get me wrong. But the questions remain of how much, how long, what's left over.

          Of course, the alternative would be to crack the crude, get varying fuels and materials for

          • Well yes but the impurities are obviously just left around. There's not much to do with sulphur unless you're an H2S burning bacteria, which isn't common up here.

            We don't crack the crude because finding it is apparently hard. They need a way to refine it out of the water and such, which I guess is hard.

        • by tragedy (27079)

          So, in other words, the water has been acidified.

          • Well, that too, but most directly we burned the oil in a series of tiny fires.
            • by tragedy (27079)

              It's pretty much as postbigbang was saying though. 60% of the oil having been consumed by bacteria doesn't mean that 60% of the problem is gone. Being eaten by bacteria is just the first stage of the process. Also, in your post you said that we were just dealing with methane. There's a heck of a lot more in crude oil than just methane. There's a whole lot of different kinds of hydrocarbons as well as stuff that isn't hydrocarbons. The ability to metabolize hydrocarbons is also a fairly special skill. It's n

              • Where did I say that we were dealing with methane?
                • by tragedy (27079)

                  When you wrote:

                  We're dealing with CH4 here or basically C(n)H(2(n+1)) which when combined with oxygen gives CO2 and H2O. News flash: it's a fuel source, it burns

                  It was in post 41313793 [slashdot.org], which is the one I originally replied to.

                  • CH4, CH2O, etc. I guess CH4 is improper because it's not C2H8, it's C2H6... CH2O is C6H12O6 though (or (CH2O)3 depending who you ask...)
                    • by tragedy (27079)

                      The discussion was about what happens to these hydrocarbons when they're consumed by the bacteria. You talked about what happens to a bunch of carbohydrates. The only hydrocarbon you mentioned was methane which combines with oxygen very cleanly (and still doesn't produce only CO2). All of the hydrocarbons that the oil we're talking about is actually composed of produce all kinds of other stuff when combined with oxygen. Also, we're not talking about burning them in a furnace here, we're talking about them b

                    • False. ALL hydrocarbons are composed of CH4, C2H6, C3H8, C4H10, etc.... Carbon surrounded by hydrogen. Hydrocarbon. There's sulfides and other shit mixed in with the oil, but that's not oil. Burning this in a furnace is different from bacteria absorbing chemicals that come in contact with the cell membrane and doing stuff with them. Bacteria will be more selective; anything not meant to be absorbed will either not enter the cell or will behave in unpredicted or undesirable ways (poison).
      • by Solandri (704621)

        The bacteria digested the oil, but what did they excrete. If they multiplied and now have no meal, they starve, and their carcasses in turn become something else. There was a process applied to the spilled oil by the bacteria. Is the remainder environmentally tenable? None of that seems to have been addressed.

        Most oil spills aren't man-made. Natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico release an estimated 1 million barrels of oil per year [nap.edu] (one ton of oil is about 6-8 barrels). The Deepwater Horizon spill was

    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      Politics in a democracy involve two sides cheering for their own while doing anything they can to damage the other side.

      Whenever a disaster happens, whichever side that named its underlying cause as an issue makes a huge deal of the event. To gain maximum publicity for their (righteous) cause, they overstates the event and style it as a new coming apocalypse.

      Your position ignores that sometimes there is an objectively "correct" thing to do and that sometimes, someone is objectively wrong for arguing against it.

      Then months later when the consequence isn't as big as they thought, the event and the issue it represents pass out of public consciousness.

      There's a nasty see-saw effect as a result. We're either full on an issue, or have forgotten it, and our legislators write law accordingly. It's like a society without an attention span.

      Do you know why Nixon (that notorious liberal) created the EPA?
      The second largest (deep water is #1) oil spill in American history brought so much attention to environmental issues that he had no choice.

      That was 42 years ago. I wouldn't call 42 years "forgotten" or "see-saw effect" or "without an attention span."

      • by nebosuke (1012041)

        Your position ignores that sometimes there is an objectively "correct" thing to do and that sometimes, someone is objectively wrong for arguing against it.

        That statement is not accurate. The only objectively "correct" things as relates to politics are facts. Interpretation of facts, determination the relative importance of specific facts with respect to a given social issue, and subsequent decisions are at the heart of politics, and there is never an objectively "correct" position for any point of that process-- it is all relative to objectives, philosophy, morality, ethics and beliefs. If you say that someone's political views are "incorrect" given a comm

    • by dpilot (134227)

      > It's like a society without an attention span.

      That's only part of the story. When you talk about society's "attention span" you have to talk about what's being put front-and-center as "news" by the media.

      One deeper cause is our current trend of calculating the financials on everything, cutting costs as much as possible and maximizing profits. In particular, if you decide that delivering the news is a financial matter rather than a sacred trust necessary to maintain our democracy, you start turning t

  • How dare they eat our precious, precious oil.

  • by divisionbyzero (300681) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @09:19AM (#41312129)

    It's not like the oil just "goes away". It gets transformed into other materials. Are those hazardous? Is the Gulf now a giant cesspool of bacterial waste?

    • by artemis67 (93453)

      More like a cycle of life... the oil spill is eaten by the bacteria, and then the bacteria get eaten by something else, which then gets eaten by something else.

      I'm wondering what the fishing boats in the Gulf are seeing, if there was a corresponding explosion of growth in populations of shrimp or such.

      • by M. Baranczak (726671) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @09:39AM (#41312339)

        I'm wondering what the fishing boats in the Gulf are seeing, if there was a corresponding explosion of growth in populations of shrimp or such.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deepwater_Horizon_oil_spill#Fisheries [wikipedia.org]

        • by nahdude812 (88157) * on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @09:56AM (#41312523) Homepage

          The money quote from that article regarding whether there is a corresponding explosion of population of life that feeds on this bacteria:

          In late 2012 local fishermen report that crab, shrimp, and oyster fishing operations have not yet recovered from the oil spill and many fear that the Gulf seafood industry will never recover. One Mississippi shrimper who was interviewed said he used to get 8,000 pounds of shrimp in four days, but this year he got only 800 pounds a week. Mississippi's oyster reefs have been closed since the spill started. A Louisanna fisherman said the local oyster industry might do 35 per cent this year, "If we're very lucky." Dr Ed Cake, a biological oceanographer and a marine and oyster biologist, said that many of the Gulf fisheries have collapsed and "If it takes too long for them to come back, the fishing industry won't survive".[314]

          So... no. If I had to speculate, the bacteria is most effective in high concentrations of dispersant. That dispersant is likely detrimental to higher lifeforms, so it's probably a smorgasbord of poisoned food. A shrimper who pulls in around 6% of his pre-disaster haul, that sounds like a completely devastated ecology. Also from the above article, they used dispersants right as tuna were spawning, and it takes a tuna fish 5-15 years to mature, so the effects of that might not hit the tuna fishing industry for 3 more years.

          • by wvmarle (1070040)

            These effects on fisheries can very well be because of the remaining 40% of the oil. That's still a lot of oil, and many lifeforms perish quickly when there is oil in the water.

          • by Solandri (704621)

            and it takes a tuna fish 5-15 years to mature,

            I'm an avid fisherman and amateur ichthyologist. Tuna mature in 3-5 years. The average lifespan of most tuna species is estimated to be about 8-15 years old. Counting the rings in the otoliths (ear bones) showed world record yellowfin tuna in the 400 lb range to be about 13-15 years old. The vast majority of yellowfin, bigeye, and bluefin tuna (the bigger ones) harvested commercially are in the 50-150 pound range (roughly 4-7 years). The older ones build

    • by gstoddart (321705) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @09:30AM (#41312233) Homepage

      It's not like the oil just "goes away". It gets transformed into other materials.

      And, most importantly, long before the bacteria can do anything with it, the damage to the fish, coral, and everything else is done.

      Though, I'm sure some people will say that since these bacteria will eventually clean things up we can spill and not worry about it.

      • I'm sure some people will say that since these bacteria will eventually clean things up we can spill and not worry about it.

        I think that's rather optimistic: I think most people had already moved onto not worrying about it while the well was still spewing at it's peak. Not because of bacteria or cleanup efforts, because they didn't live in the gulf and assume the environment won't ever change.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      It gets transformed into more bacteria and heat. And probably CO2 in the process.
    • by khallow (566160) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @09:50AM (#41312455)

      Is the Gulf now a giant cesspool of bacterial waste?

      It's worth remembering that the Gulf, as well as most of the rest of the world, has always been a giant cesspool of bacterial waste.

    • by mapkinase (958129) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @09:52AM (#41312481) Homepage Journal

      In principal, chemically, all of oil could be processed, with potential release/consumption of water and carbon dioxide.

      In terms of elements, chemically, oil actually is pretty clean, it's just basic organic elements of life, as every one of you knows. Oil pollution problem is a result it's physical properties: viscosity, density, etc. Which results from oil being bunch of rather long polymers.

      Theoretically, it does not make sense for bacteria that consumes oil to produce polymers longer than oil polymers, most likely, it couldn't exert nothing but carbon dioxide, water, methane - smaller molecular compounds.

      That's the bacterial waste directly from oil metabolism. Theoretically there could be toxins from other aspects of bacteria's life.

      Theoretically.

  • Not at the wellhead but oil matching the signature of the Macondo field is (or was earlier this year) leaking out of the seabed from somewhere. If the oil has found a fracture line out of the bottom of the dead well then to quote the song , There could be trouble ahead...

  • by Orga (1720130) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @09:29AM (#41312223)

    This could easily have been a natural occurrence, at anytime nature could again just decide to expel tons of deep ocean oil, but because now people have $$$$ involved and it could be blamned on someone (sued) then it's all the news with the environmentalists. Anyone who actually has studied some Geology knows this was not a big deal for the environment... and please.. we need to talk in scales of centuries.. not months.

    • by P-niiice (1703362)
      Yes but it wasn't nature it was BP and friends so I'm not sure what you're posting about. BP screws up, BP pays. Pretty simple.
      • by AGMW (594303)

        Yes but it wasn't nature it was BP's subcontractors so I'm not sure what you're posting about. BP's subcontractors screw up, BP pays, because the subcontractors have friends in high places. Pretty simple.

        Fixed that for you

        • by P-niiice (1703362)
          I acutally said "BP and friends" - I figured that would cover them and the subcontractors subsequently.
    • by wvmarle (1070040) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @10:20AM (#41312811)

      They may say "twice the Exxon Valdez in a year" which may very well be true, but there are two giant differences:

      1) both the Exxon Valdez and this Deep Water Horizon spills spilled their vast quantities of oil in hours or days, not spread over a year. They both caused a huge spike in oil concentrations, well over the naturally occuring spills.

      2) the Exxon Valdez was at the surface, so the oil directly contaminated large parts of shoreline where the natural seep usually doesn't get to as it's all eaten by bacteria or dissolved in the water before it can reach the shore.

      The reason there are natural spills all the time will certainly have helped in the clean-up of the Deep Water Horizon spill, as there is an existing ecosystem of oil-eating bacteria present. But to say "oh it doesn't matter as nature spills more" is false. Nature has a huge capacity when it comes to cleaning up our mess, given enough time, but that doesn't mean we should just allow it to happen.

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      I won't live for centuries, will you?

      I want to be able to eat fish today, fisherman want to be able to make a living today. The question was never will the sea recover, it was what is the economic cost of the spill. Also what is the short term cost to the local environment?

    • So because a disaster COULD have been natural, the only reason one would try to prevent it from happening again is greed?

      Interesting. You could die naturally at any time, therefore you must be greedy. Hurry up and die please.
    • by T Murphy (1054674)

      at anytime nature could again just decide to expel tons of deep ocean oil

      Considering we can only access that oil because it has not leaked out after millions and millions of years, that doesn't seem too likely.

  • I'm guessing they ate it to gain its super powers.

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @09:53AM (#41312483)

    What happens to all of the oil they consume? When a person devours a large plate of nachos, much of that tasty food comes out as undesirable waste products that have to be carefully treated and disposed of.

    Do they turn it into some other chemical? Do they just eat the oil, reproduce, and eventually die, leaving 200,000 tons of organic matter at the bottom of the gulf (is that any better than 200,000 tons of oil?). Oil from the ground has lots of contaminants like sulfur, what happens to the parts of the oil the bacteria can't digest?

  • "40% of the oil and natural gas is still in the gulf" -- is this 40% of the total released quantity of oil AND natural gas combined, 40% of each of oil and natural gas, or some other combination?

    What was the proportion of oil:natural gas released? I'd be less worried about natural gas in the ocean than oil, but maybe that's naive (although I've never seen a cleanup working cleaning up natural gas..)

  • by oh_my_080980980 (773867) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 @10:27AM (#41312893)
    After the recent tar balls and oil patched brought to shore by Hurricane Isaac....
  • "bacteria have consumed over 200,000 tons of oil and natural gas"

    So, the bacteria have now produced over 114,000 tons of CO2...

    As interpreted from "Effect of Environmental Parameters on the Biodegradation of Oil Sludge"
    (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC243289/pdf/aem00208-0071.pdf)

    • Wrong... My fault. It is much, much more... They produce 57% of the theoretical maximum, which is a lot larger thanks to all the oxygen adding up with each carbon atom. Damn, I realized it right after pressing the send button...

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