Gulf Oil Spill Gone? Not So Fast, Says Texas A&M Oceanographer

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COLLEGE STATION, Aug. 5, 2010 - Reports saying that 75 percent of the gulf oil spill has either been cleaned up or broken down by natural forces are likely incorrect, and there are still big problems lurking beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, says a Texas A&M scientist who conducted one of the first on-site studies of the spill.

John Kessler, assistant professor of oceanography in the College of Geosciences, says reports that most of the gulf oil has disappeared and appears no longer to be a problem are misleading, if not totally inaccurate. Bottom line, he explains: there are still large amounts of oil and gas in the gulf and they still pose big problems.

"Recent reports seem to say that about 75 percent of the spill has been taken care of, and that is just not true," Kessler says.

"These reports seem to indicate that about 25 percent of the spill has been recovered or removed, another 25 percent has been dispersed, and another 25 percent has been evaporated or dissolved. But the reality is that only 25 percent has been removed from the ocean - the rest is still out there. Just because the form of the material is now dissolved or dispersed doesn't mean it isn't in the ocean and doesn't pose significant problems."

Kessler, who headed a National Science Foundation research expedition to the site in mid-June and reported finding methane levels about 100,000 times above normal near and at the gulf spill site, says the public perception now appears to be that "the gulf oil spill problem is just about over and we don't have to worry about it.

"It's true the well has been capped and the oil is not flowing, and that's good," he notes. "And it also appears the problem of oil pushing into the wetlands and marshes may be decreasing thanks to efforts to remove oil from the ocean surface, which is also encouraging.

"But the fact is that 50 to 75 percent of the material that came out of the well is still in the water - it's just in a dissolved or dispersed form," he says.

He notes that even oil and gas that has been broken down naturally, or bio-degraded, still can present problems because it tends to remove oxygen from the water. If enough oxygen is removed, the waters can become hypoxic and these oxygen-depleted waters can create "dead zones" that can be harmful to marine life.

"Even if it is dissolved or dispersed, the oil can still be toxic to marine life even in very small amounts," he adds.

"Also, the reports coming out mention nothing of the huge amounts of natural gas we know that came out alongside the oil, and this methane is almost one-half of the material that was emitted from the well. We know a very large plume or cloud of methane still exists about 3,000 feet below the ocean surface, and that's a huge concern itself.

"The bottom line is, this problem has not gone away as some recent reports seem to indicate," Kessler continues. "There are still large amounts of oil and gas in the gulf - just because we see less at the surface doesn't mean it isn't there."