June 2010

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I just saw Dr. Russell Chianelli on Bloomberg TV, and my jaw hit the floor.

He’s a professor at UT, and helped clean up the Exxon Valdez Oil Spil by “populating” the beaches with these natural “oil eaters”. In his interview, he pointed out that oil is CONSTANTLY leaking into our oceans from various sources (obviously, not as fast and overwhelming as the BP situation).

But this is the first I’ve heard about something that makes a lot of sense: that, despite the impression we’ve all developed, oil is a NATURAL phenomenon and there are naturally-occuring creatures on Earth that have evolved to subsist on it.

In fact, he went further, and insisted that, despite popular conception, the Valdez Spill has been “almost completely” corrected using these little oil-hungry buggers. And he challenged anyone to “go up there, and prove otherwise”.


By Dr. Russell Chianelli

As I am starting the Materials for Energy Blog, a BP oil well, located 50 miles off the coast of the U.S. in the Gulf of Mexico and one mile below the surface of the ocean, blows out releasing 5,000 barrels of oil per day. This brings me right back to 1989 when I was working on the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill[i]. People remember the Exxon Valdez but don’t realize that it wasn’t the biggest tanker spill in the world[ii].

So what was the biggest global oil spill? Before the Gulf War the biggest oil spill in the world was the Ixtoc Blow-Out in the Bahia de Campeche, Mexico on June 3, 1979[iii]. When PEMEX drilled a deep exploratory well, similar to the current blowout, the sea bottom gave way and in 9 months 3,500,000 barrels of oil were released; more than 10 times the amount released by the Exxon Valdez. The nearest coastline in the U.S. was in Texas, approximately 600 miles away! Out of this huge amount of oil, very little ever reached the shores of Padre Island, which was the closest point. Why? This is because of hydrocarbon degrading organisms, Hydrocarbon Degraders. These microorganisms consume the oil creating CO2 and H2O and more of themselves. Approximately, 50% of the petroleum goes to making biomass that then goes up the food chain.

After every major oil spill there is an explosion in the number of fish and other marine creatures as they consume the Hydrocarbon Degraders. Everywhere in the ocean oil seeps occur. In fact, many of the deposits in the Gulf of Mexico were discovered by observing Oil Seeps.

Thus the Hydrocarbon Degraders are everywhere waiting for their dinner! What can be done to oil spilling into the sea?

The science of Hydrocarbon Degraders and oil spills was originally investigated by Dr. Ronald Atlas, now of the University of Louisville, who studied the Amoco Cadiz oil spill which occurred on March 16, 1978[iv]. The Amoco Cadiz was the largest tanker spill ever, spilling 1,600,000 barrels of crude on the beaches of Brittany, France. Nutrients, N and P, from farms above the beach, enhanced the growth of the Hydrocarbon Degraders giving rise to the concept Nutrient Enhanced Bioremediation for dealing with oiled beaches. It was this idea that Ron Atlas and I developed for the beaches in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This was the largest successful bioremediation project. The materials used were INIPOL EAP-22[v], an oleophilic nutrient and CUSTOMBLEND, a typical agricultural fertilizer. Their application is described in reference 1. These nutrients were successfully used on the beaches in Alaska and not on oil in the open water.
For oil in open water, an EPA approved dispersant may be used such as COREXIT[vi].

Since oil and water don’t mix the oil is only available to the Hydrocarbon Degraders at the oil/water interface slowing hydrocarbon degradation. Adding the dispersant allows the oil and water to mix accelerating the degradation of the oil and destroying the oil slick. Such a dispersant is being used on the current offshore oil spill to prevent the oil from reaching the beach[vii].

A dispersant was not used in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. If it had been used the oil would not have reached the beaches after a major storm. Oil on the beach requires Nutrient Enhanced Bioremediation. In the case of the Ixtoc blow-out, natural dispersants, produced by the Hydrocarbon Degraders, allow them to access the oil. The dispersant being added accelerates the process and will likely prevent most of the oil from hitting beaches[viii].

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