Hydrogeologist Lyle Bruce spent a career with BP, and the company called him back into service after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Bruce's new role is community outreach -- meeting with ordinary folks along the Gulf of Mexico and explaining what's happening miles off their coastline. On May 12, Bruce told a crowd in the Orange Beach, Alabama, city hall:
[L]et me tell you, this area is rich in oil. The deep water Gulf of Mexico could possibly rival Saudi Arabia in the amount of oil they got out there. Only it's in deep water. It had been out of reach. Because that bounty is out there, there have been numerous studies to say, "What can the Gulf of Mexico take?"... To make it short, there's enough oxygen in the Gulf right now that if all the oil that we've discovered to date -- about 10 billion barrels were released at once, we'd use less than one percent of the available oxygen.
When I asked him about it last week, Bruce pointed to a study from Texas A&M that was published in 2005, "Deepwater Program: Understanding the Process that Maintain the Oxygen Levels in the Deep Gulf of Mexico."
But a co-author of that study disagrees with the relatively sanguine picture Bruce projects. Steve DiMarco says the research, funded by the Bush-era Minerals Management Service, wasn't designed to consider the direct impact from toxic oil on wildlife -- let alone to say it would be OK to dump all the known oil in the Gulf straight into the water. "I would think it's a little bit self-serving to say it that way," says DiMarco, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M. "Releasing all that oil that way, we weren't looking at the biological implications of that. You're essentially poisoning their environment."
DiMarco's work for the Minerals Management Service was part of a string of projects commissioned by MMS as part of opening the Gulf of Mexico to deepwater drilling. Since the Deepwater Horizon collapsed, the Obama administration has criticized the federal service for lax management and cozy relationships with the oil industry it's supposed to regulate. Last night on The Rachel Maddow Show, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) called a 2007 MMS study "scandalous."
Looking back, DiMarco says that whatever management or political problems exist within MMS, the agency got better at basic science. He says they insisted on having the research peer-reviewed, for one thing. And yet DiMarco also remembers that it took a while to understand exactly what question MMS wanted his team to answer. It turned out that regulators wanted to know about the effect of an oil spill on oxygen levels in the water. Naturally occurring bacteria do eat naturally seeping oil -- though Bruce's calculation of the volume of the Deepwater Spill is wishfully small. If the bacteria were to bloom too quickly, they'd potentially take up all the oxygen, leaving a dead zone in the Gulf.
"As we were doing the study, it became apparent that within MMS, they were worried about a spill in the deep Gulf of Mexico, and whether that would make the Gulf of Mexico go anoxic," he says, meaning the water would have no oxygen left for creatures to breathe. He adds, "I don't think they really wanted to outright express that concern at the moment."
Over the course of the project, DiMarco's team did find that it would be incredibly difficult to render the entire Gulf of Mexico anoxic (summary/full report pdf's). His team did write that you could dump all the known oil in the Gulf into the water at once and scarcely make a dent in the oxygen supply. But he says that doesn't make it OK -- even in the case of a single oil reserve spilling into the water day after day.
Since he learned of the Deepwater Horizons spill, DiMarco has worried about the sperm whales who use the water around the well to feed. He worries about the Flower Banks National Marine Sanctuary, where coral waits, completely vulnerable, for oil moving westward toward the Texas coast. Knowing what he knows, he says, the Deepwater Horizons spill represents a catastrophe. "This is a really bad, bad thing," he says. "I think everyone is realizing that."
Except for BP, which continues to take ads saying it will make the situation right. They've got years of MMS studies on their side. "There is an ecosystem developed in the Gulf of Mexico to degrade and destroy oil," Bruce told me. "Overall, these long plumes we see in the deep sea, although there will be local effects, most of that is going to be destroyed before it gets too far along."
(Thanks to Mirjam Lablans for the video, using audio sent by a TRMS viewer. If you've got stuff to send, send it!)