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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 06/24/2010

Beyond the BP spill, a case of chronic oil pollution

By Steve Tracton

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Oil burning during a controlled oil fire last month in the Gulf of Mexico. AP Photo/US Navy.

There's no question that BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill is an unmitigated disaster of yet unknown societal and economic proportions, not to mention the possibly irreparable damage to coastal and marine ecosystems. According to government estimates, as of yesterday anywhere from 39 million to 111 million gallons of crude oil has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico (that excludes captured oil). Most officials lean toward the higher totals while noting up to 2.5 million gallons more continue to spill each day -- that's an Exxon Valdez spill (nearly 11 million gallons total) about every four days.

Yet, while this oil spill and others before it have dominated the news, according to a 2003 National Research Council (NRC) report, at least 375 million gallons of oil end up in the world's oceans virtually unnoticed every year from natural sources and from human activities associated with the extraction, transportation and use of oil. Should the current rate of uncaptured oil discharged from the BP well continue, the spill will equal the yearly amount of oil entering the world's oceans sometime in August. Which is just about the time relief wells will, supposedly, completely plug the Deepwater Horizon gusher.

Unfortunately, no such end is in sight for the apparently massive background level of oil pollution.

Average annual contribution (1990-1999) from major sources of ocean oil pollution. Adapted from a 2003 NRC report

Natural seepage generally occurs in regions of concentrated oil (and gas) -- not surprisingly, these are often the same areas where oil wells are drilled -- such as the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of California, and accounts for 47% of oil pollution worldwide. It follows that anthropogenic sources account for the majority (53%) of yearly oil pollution (almost 200 million gallons) of the world's oceans.

Perhaps surprisingly, a vast majority of this 53% is a consequence of mankind's use of oil rather than accidental spills associated with offshore drilling or tanker transport. Technological advances in offshore drilling and safety measures -- notwithstanding the BP fiasco -- and regulations regarding the design of oil tankers (enacted in response to the Exxon Valdez disaster) have dramatically reduced blow outs, spillage resulting from nominal oil production (offshore and onshore facilities), and oil tanker disasters. As a result, collectively these sources account for only 3% of non-natural oil pollution.
Of special interest and relevance to the U.S., the NRC reports that of the 375 million gallons entering the oceans worldwide every year, at least 75 million originate from North America. The largest component (62%) is seepage from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and to a lesser extent the ocean bottom off the California coast. While proportionally less than for the globe, anthropogenic sources are not insubstantial (28.5 mil gallons), with the vast majority not from accidents in extraction or transport, but human use, including misuse and waste of oil and oil-based products.

The vast majority of use-related oil pollution (about 87%) in North America is from urban runoff into rivers, discharges from commercial and recreational marine vessels, and air pollution. Among the individual sources are improper disposal of used motor oil, (e.g., from cars, lawn mowers, etc), oily storm-water drainage from city streets, runoff of municipal and industrial petroleum waste products (e.g., from refineries and power plants), leaking from storage facilities, oil released from bilge cleaning and other ship operations, and deposition by rain of atmospheric hydrocarbons. More than half of the oil that originates from land-based sources and ends up in North America's near-shore waters comes from the urbanized areas between Maine and Virginia.

The airborne sources of oil pollution into the ocean nominally include emissions from vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities. Added now to an unknown degree is the hydrocarbon load from purposeful spot burning of surface oil in the Gulf. Speculatively, at least some, if not most of the oil rid from the surface of the Gulf might simply settle back or be washed out by rain and spread as a poisonous residue over a larger area including, possibly, otherwise unaffected regions over land.

Individually, each contributor of oil pollution of our seas may be relatively small and sporadic, but collectively amount to tens of thousands of releases into the world's oceans every year. Notwithstanding the justifiable attention on the Gulf spill and its catastrophic consequences, these sources of oil pollution might very well be more important in both scale and degree to the longer-term health of the marine environment. While many aspects of the chemical composition of these diffuse contaminants are largely unknown, they continuously create relatively low but chronic contamination over huge areas of the world's oceans.

We know that in the short term, even a small amount of oil in the sea can have severe effects on marine life depending on the location and timing of its release. Over the long term, there is possibly a latent (hidden) period before evidence of non-obvious consequences of oil pollution are discovered. And then it might be too late to do anything about it (advocates for climate change action know this feeling all too well).

On the other hand, except for natural seepage, the of oil now hemorrhaging into the Gulf is unique in that it enters the water from unprecedented depths (approx. 5000 feet). Consequently, many of the contaminants are washed off or dissolved as the oil rises with some unknown percentage of the total forming extensive plumes well below the surface. The concentrated and continuing effects of contaminants reaching beaches, wetlands and, especially, ecosystems and food chains within the Gulf (and perhaps beyond) will presumably remain open questions subject to intense research for the foreseeable future. One question I do not have an answer to is what, if any research has been done to date studying the ever-present natural seepage of large volumes of crude oil from the floor of the Gulf.

Whatever the outcome of the Gulf disaster, it's clear that ultimately it will be a matter only of determining the degree and extent of the environmental and human tragedies, and whether lessons learned will be sufficient to avoid comparable catastrophes in the future.

POSTSCRIPT: During World War II, 452 oil tankers were sunk in the North Atlantic, as were an unknown number of the 1080 wrecks lying on the bottom of the Pacific. Little is known about the total amount of oil that spilled directly in to the ocean, but it's likely much went to the bottom in ships that remained virtually intact. It is known that two oil tankers sunk in 1942 lie only a few hundred miles from Australia's Great Barrier Reef and are estimated to contain as much oil as the Exxon Valdez. It's only a matter of time before rotting hulks pose enormous potential to foul fragile environments.

By Steve Tracton  | June 24, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
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...and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.

And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;

And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died;...

Posted by: oneStarMan | June 24, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

It's never too late to remove the cause of pollution. The only thing preventing it is a lack of will to do it. BP tried to minimize their catastrophe from the start. Nature will adapt to the oil but it can never adapt to greedy idiots. We must get rid of oil drilling in areas where it doesn't belong.

Posted by: seemstome | June 24, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

The oil pollution issue is the direct result of our continuing obsession with the private automobile. We should adopt a decent energy policy to address this. First, implement fuel rationing as we did in WWII. Next, tax everything associated with cars [purchase, registration, fuel purchases, drivers' license renewal...] and it is vitally important that we apply the proceeds of these new taxes to transportation/energy applications [highway construction and maintenance and relief of Metro and other transit systems' deficites as well as transit system construction].

The present Virginia car tax is wrong because proceeds go to the general fund, and not to highway and transit improvements. It should be repealed and replaced with a tax applied to transportation.

Motor vehicle fleets [e.g. taxicabs, emergency and law enforcement] and vital applications would be exempt from rationing and taxation requirements. Hybrid and electric vehicles would be taxed at a rate lower than standard internal combustion.

As long as we adhere to "business as usual" we'll continue to need offshore petroleum drilling with its attendant pollution risks. Same goes for tar sands and other environmentally risky petroleum recovery options.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | June 24, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

A few things that were not noted in the article (which is well balanced). The natural seeps are processed naturally by bacteria. Small amounts of manmade spills can be processed naturally under the right conditions. I believe it needs to warm and bacteria have to be present. When a contractor spilled oil and diesel on a property where I used to live, I was instructed to mix it with dirt, then cover it so the rain didn't leach it out.

As for what to do about our need for oil: free up the market. Use the EPA and other agencies to monitor the environment and fine those who pollute. It is obvious that the government agency that approved BP's emergency plans was just a rubber stamping agency. But the use of the EPA to shut down carbon industries is a back door attempt to get around the do-nothing congress and will be very detrimental to the economy. Here is just one example

Another valid approach is to consider Alaska and the Gulf part of a "strategic reserve" and preserve it for future emergencies (i.e. don't lease it out). But that should be thought out, particularly the unintended consequence of discouraging private reserves. If that approach is chosen, then the government still needs to get out of energy economics and simply fund basic research for long term investments in alternatives.

Everything else is pure politics and we end up with light rail that nobody uses, biofuels that are completely uneconomic, solar farms in Virginia where the sun shines 2000 out of 8700 hours a year, etc. On the personal political side, my bus gets 10% of operating costs from a state subsidy and 80% of some capital costs from federal. The rest is my roughly $300/month payment minus $115 metro checks. So enjoy your light rail but realize that if I have to pay a lot more (e.g. diesel tax for my bus), I will just drive instead.

Posted by: eric654 | June 24, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

The USA is failing the Gulf States and everyone from the Gulf States Governors, President, Congressman and Senators on down is Guilty. We have clear cut solutions for cleaning up the Gulf coast spill as it is happening but so far not enough Money and Resources have been deployed to meet the Scale of the Gusher.

We (the USA) need Four main Tools; Supertankers, Oil separating Centrifuges, Barges with Pumps, and Sand-Sifting machines. Please Order all major Gulf Coast Oil Drillers (BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and ConocoPhillips) to Purchase and Provide these tools, or have the Congress and Gulf Coast Governors Purchase or Lease them and the necessary Manpower and send the bill to BP.

1. Bring In Supertankers that can Suck up Millions of gallons of Oil and Water and discharge it for Separation and processing.

2. Purchase Hundreds of Oil Separating Centrifuges. (Kevin Costner’s 210,000 gallons a day Oil and Water Separator and Cleanup centrifuges). 32 have been only recently purchased by BP but Hundreds are needed.

3. Surround the Marshes and Beaches with Barges to serve as Barrier Walls with Suction Pumps and Separators to Suck the Oil off the water and Dispose of it in Refineries along the coast.

4. Use Sand-Sifting machines, which are capable of cleaning long areas of beach in minutes rather than the hours it takes to do the work by hand.

Can we all get on board for this effort to Cleanup the current Gusher or is there something better to use or more important? Right now the Gulf Coast States, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and ConocoPhillips are not doing these things to the extent that they are needed and both Republicans and Democrats need to initiate Drastic action yesterday if anyone is to be trusted ever again to handle the people’s business.

I'm writing my Governor, Congressman and Senators now. Gulf Coast Governors can Buy and Lease the Equipment just as well as anyone and bill all expenses to BP.

Posted by: liveride | June 24, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

...and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.

=== Okay, that's global warming, which Fox news is denying, as they keep blaring we should apologize to poor BP for our shakedown of this magnificent company ;')

...And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died;..

=== that's the Gulf Spill. BTW, oceanographers say we've already just about killed the ocean. That will only be the final straw.

=== I'm trying to figure what the second prophecy is for.

And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;

=== Um, some surprise yet to come, I guess. But it's all true to form. Sounds like a volcano, but none have erupted that near the sea yet. I guess the ash from a v volcano could turn the water red, depending on the mineral content. Or, an asteroid collision. I'd go with an asteroid collision since I can't recall any volcanoes that spewed red ore.

Posted by: cybervigilante | June 24, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Unofficially, it looks to me that there is an increasing chance of a tropical storm entering the Gulf of Mexico early next week. If that occurs, it's any ones' guess what that means to the oil spill

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | June 24, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

FAUX Breaking News: Oil, Gas and Chemical companies complain that not allowing them to Poison Local Communities and their Water Supplies will force them to curtail hiring.

Coming to the East Coast: Hydraulic Fracturing JOBS uses Hundreds of Chemicals and Poisons that are Killing whole communities in Colorado and Wyoming. Hydraulic Fracturing’s resulting Briny and Chemical-laden drilling wastewater is allowed to Contaminate Water supplies by Pumping and Seeping into Regional Waterways.

The Halliburton Loophole in the 2005 Energy Act exempts Hydraulic Fracturing from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and a host of other protections. Now Drillers are bringing their poisons to Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and other states.

Oil, Gas and Chemical companies complain that not allowing them to Poison Local Communities and their Water Supplies will force them to curtail hiring; Sounds a lot like the Offshore Drilling argument.

Hydraulic Fracturing creates Hundreds to Thousands of Poisonous Ponds in every Region where it's been done. Unfortunately Virginia's GOP Tea Party and Oil loving governor will let them Poison the People of Virginia so he can make a few bucks.

Watch Out Southwestern Virginia. If you live in a community with Natural Resources, With Water, Wildlife and Seafood and.....Gas.....Hydraulic Fracturing Poisons is coming your way. You can forget about having Clean Water but at least you'll have a Job for as long as it's takes to Poison your Family and the surrounding Wildlife. Enjoy the JOBS.

You could be Milking Millions of Royalties Annually from Windmills but we know that's not allowed by your GOP and Tea "Oil & Coal" Party Masters.

33 exploratory out of 3600 producing rigs idled. Cry me a River.

Posted by: liveride | June 24, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

As the crude oil continues to invade the Gulf; BP, the US Government, the Coast Guard, and other official agencies monitoring the toxic crude, continues to FIDDLE. That is what I called the “Dance of Deliberate Deception”. No one will come forward with the intestinal fortitude, and declare the obvious - that crude oil is toxic to breath. There are warnings posted wherever the refined oil is found, like gas stations. I have been told that a medical study cannot be conducted until after 6 months of exposure. WHAT? There have been 21 years since the exposure of the crude oil in Prince William Sound, and no one is listening. So, after 6 months of workers in the gulf breathe in the crude oil, a study can be conducted? That leads me to believe that the government is holding up the rug, while BP sweeps known reports under the same rug, and the other agencies conduct the “Dance of Deliberate Deception” on top of the rug.
Anyone who reads this alert, stand with me, and demand honest answers for the Gulf residents, and cleanup workers who will be suffering from the crude oil toxic fumes if this political dance continues.

This alert has been posted since day one of the Gulf crude oil spill, and I will continue posting until BP supplies beach oil cleanup workers respirators.

Dear Gulf Residents:
Esquire Magazine:
Las Vegas, Review Journal Article:

My name is Merle Savage, a female general foreman during the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS) beach cleanup in 1989. I am one of the 11,000+ cleanup workers, who is suffering from health issues from that toxic cleanup, without compensation from Exxon.

Dr. Riki Ott visited me in 2007 to explain about the toxic spraying on the beaches, and informed me that Exxon's medical records that surfaced in litigation by sick workers in 1994, had been sealed from the public, making it impossible to hold Exxon responsible for their actions.

Beach crews breathed in crude oil that splashed off the rocks and into the air -- the toxic exposure turned into chronic breathing conditions, central nervous system problems, neurological impairment, chronic respiratory disease, leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, liver damage, and blood disease.

Posted by: msavage12 | June 24, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this informative report. Keep up your good work.

Posted by: WillF1 | June 24, 2010 11:30 PM | Report abuse

Haha! This is an awesome way to get back at BP!

Posted by: preston2190 | June 25, 2010 3:47 AM | Report abuse

Merle, I'm totally with you and hope, but do not necessarily expect, that those in authority will take notice and act accordingly. Words alone do NOT suffice.

I could not come up with a better description on the state of affairs; "Dance of Deliberate Deception”. And, of course, this unfortunately applies to far too many aspects of public affairs across the spectrum of politics and vested economic entities.

Why is it that so many never seem to learn from lessons learned?? I certainly do not have a rational answer.

I'd be glad to help in whatever way possible to get the message out. Feel free to contact me at: .

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | June 25, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

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