Friday, June 18, 2010

More Gulf Horror! Scientists Say 'Unusual' High Methane Could Turn Sea Into Dead Zones

Take it from me, the big news Friday from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is not BP CEO Tony Hayward removed from disaster responsibilities but scientists reporting the gusher contains about 40% methane that could turn Gulf waters into an ecological dead zone for fish and plant life.

John Kessler, a Texas A&M oceanographer, reports oil deposits his team has examined potentially could suffocate marine life into "dead zones" where oxygen is so depleted that nothing lives. Typical oil deposits contain about 5% methane, he said.

"This is the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history," Kessler said.

Methane is a colorless, odorless and flammable substance that is a major component in the natural gas used to heat people's homes.

BP is burning the excess gas attached to the crude siphoned from the breached well in which it claims it has collected about 2 million barrels.
But that is only a fraction of what has been leaked and uncaptured since the Deepwater Horizons explosion April 20. Scientists earlier this week estimated 60,000 bpd are spewing from the disaster site 5,000 below the Gulf water surface.

The burn off of natural gas in the containment operations represents enough to fuel 450,000 homes for four days. It is unknown whether BP petroleum engineers realized the gas contained such high levels of the combustible methane.

Scientists say they do not know how widespread the high methane concentrates are mixed in the crude from 3,000-foot depths to those reaching the shorelines. 

In early June, Samantha Joye, leader of a research team from the University of Georgia, located a 15-mile-long plume in 4,200 feet of water. She was reported to say samples indicated methane concentrations 10,000 times higher than normal depleting oxygen levels 40%.

Here's one definition: Microbes living in the sea feed on the spilled oil and gas, consuming large quantities of oxygen which they need to digest food. It creates two problems. When oxygen levels drop low enough, the breakdown of oil grinds to a halt; and as it is depleted in the water, most life can't be sustained.

The findings by Kessler and Joye are baffling and both admit they do not know what the impact could be in the long- or short-term. As Joye expressed in an email to a news outlet, her findings  are "the most bizarre looking oxygen profiles I have ever seen anywhere."

Robert Haddad, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's chief of the assessment and restoration division, cautioned that more research is needed to understand the ramifications of high methane concentrations creating the low oxygen levels.

"The question is what's going on in the deeper, colder parts of the ocean," he said. "Are the (methane) concentrations going to overcome the amount of available oxygen?"

Methane has played a killer role in the disaster so far. A bubble of methane is believed to have burst up from the seafloor and ignited the rig explosion that killed 11 crew. Methane crystals also clogged a four-story containment box that engineers earlier tried to place on top of the breached well.

All this puts the beleaguered Hayward out of sight and out of mind. BP board chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg announced on SkyTV Friday the spill responsibilities were being turned over to  Robert Dudley, a member of BP's board of directors management team.

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