Clean Gulf conference this week in Tampa looks at oil spill prevention and mitigation listen11/12/13 Janelle Irwin
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A group sponsored by some big oil companies including BP is bringing industry leaders together in Tampa this week to increase “business transactions”. Clean Gulf is hosting a conference focusing on oil spill prevention and response, including the use of dispersants.
A study of new dispersant technologies co-authored by Vijay John, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Tulane University is being referenced at the conference. During a phone interview, John described the chemicals as a mixture of soaps that help break large oil slicks into much smaller clumps.
“And the idea is that, now that you’ve broken up the oil into little droplets, the droplets can be dispersed throughout the ocean – dispersed means scattered and that’s where the term dispersant comes from.”
But the use of nearly 2 million gallons of dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 BP oil spill has raised eyebrows among environmentalists who worry the chemicals are harming marine ecosystems, but also that spreading the problem doesn’t make it go away. John said the oil may not completely disappear and it’s not an instant solution, but,
“By breaking up the oil into tiny little droplets with a lot of surface area, you also allow the organisms – bacteria and so on that have evolved in the Gulf of Mexico that are natural oil seeps and so that are the organisms that are evolved to break up the oil; to eat the oil.”
Those organisms do exist, but Jonathan Henderson with the Gulf Restoration Network said there aren’t enough oil-eating bacteria in the Gulf to consume oil from a spill as big as the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
“In 2012, we found fresh, liquid oil washing up into marshes that was fingerprinted to be from the BP disaster. So, this wasn’t tar balls. It wasn’t tar mats that are submerged on barrier islands. This was liquid oil that came in from somewhere but nobody knows where. So, there’s real fear out there that there could be pools of oil that are buried under sand and sentiment in the bays along the coast that, when there’s a lot of wave action, it churns it up and cause re-oiling of marsh.”
Critics of using dispersants to clean spills argue the oil should be removed by skimmers. But Tulane professor John said that solution is only feasible for smaller spills.
“Picture taking a razor blade and making a line across your desk. Ok? That’s what a skimmer does. If you think of the desk as an oil spill and the line made by the razor blade as a skimmer picking up, the scale is just too vast.”
“Why can’t you just make a bigger skimmer?”
“There just aren’t enough skimmers in all the world. You can make bigger skimmers or you can have bigger skimmers, but there’s just not enough skimmers.”
“It’s true in that, one skimmer or just a few skimmers in the Gulf of Mexico responding to the biggest oil catastrophe in the history of the United States wouldn’t have much effect. However, if there were thousands of skimmers available with workers who are trained on how to use them and a process in place for where to bring the oil once it’s collected, that’s something that could have made a huge difference.”
Henderson, from the Gulf Restoration Network, traveled from Louisiana to attend the conference. It will feature speakers from the oil industry and some companies who are contracted for restoration efforts when a spill happens. But even though Henderson submitted ideas to Clean Gulf to lead a panel, he was shot down and told “industry professionals” would cover his topic – creating a group of stakeholders among from all five Gulf states.
“Basically what it is is a community stakeholder entity that doesn’t have the effect of law, but it has the knowledge and the risk and the intellect to work with the industry to help them do their jobs safer so as to avoid another Exxon-Valdese. Well, Congress, in their infinite wisdom in 1990 decided that they would allow one in Alaska, but no where else in the rest of the country.”
When trying to track down speakers today at the conference, workers said WMNF could not go into the room where participants were setting up. They also said the group tends to shy away from media outlets that aren’t “industry friendly.” A media relations group employee, Kayla Appelt, did not respond to an interview request to speak with panelists at the conference.