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Scientists doubt claims methane gone after BP spill

BP oil spill partly blamed for Gulf dolphin deaths
Miami (AFP) May 26, 2011 - The deaths of over 150 dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico so far this year is due in part to the devastating 2010 BP oil spill and the chemical dispersants used to contain it, a report said Thursday.

A total of 153 dolphins have been found in the Gulf so far in 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Sixty-five of the mammals were babies.

In a study on the effects of the spill, marine expert Graham Worthy of the University of Central Florida, along with 26 other experts, said the dolphins were found in a part of the Gulf that saw nearly five million barrels of crude leak in the worst oil spill in US history.

"I suspect what we might be seeing are several things coming together to form a perfect storm," Worthy said.

However, unusual cold waters that were partially to blame are also conditions that the dolphins could normally survive -- so the deaths "may also be seeing an indirect effect stemming from the BP oil spill," he said.

"If oil and the dispersants have disrupted the food chain, this may have prevented the mother dolphins from getting adequate nutrition and building up the insulating blubber they needed to withstand the cold."

BP last month pledged $1 billion to jump-start projects aimed at restoring the US Gulf Coast by rebuilding damaged coastal marshes, replenishing soiled beaches, and conserving ocean habitat to help injured wildlife recover.

The funds are also being put towards restoring barrier islands and wetlands that provide natural protection from storms.

By the time the well was capped 87 days later, 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons) of oil had gushed out of the runaway well 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) May 26, 2011
Scientists on Thursday cast doubt on a study that claimed bacteria ate nearly all the methane that leaked after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, saying its methods were flawed.

Describing the findings as "ambiguous" and "unconvincing," marine scientist and lead author Samantha Joye and colleagues from 12 other institutions wrote in the journal Science that the study's methods demanded a second look.

"We find the complete methane oxidation hypothesis unconvincing," said the article in the peer-reviewed journal.

The initial study was also published in the journal Science back in January.

It argued that "nearly all" of the methane -- which made up 20 percent of the huge plume of crude oil that escaped from a broken underwater pipeline after the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon platform exploded on April 20, 2010 -- was ingested by bacteria in four months.

The leak, the worst oil spill in US history, was finally plugged on July 15, 2010 after spewing millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf.

University of California Santa Barbara geochemistry professor David Valentine, one of the earlier study authors, said the rapid "digestion" of the methane by bacteria showed the vital role microorganisms play in preventing greenhouse gases at the bottom of the ocean from entering the Earth's atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

But Joye and her colleagues said in their technical comment piece published Thursday that that may not have been the case.

"A range of data exists that shows a significant release of methane seeping out at the seafloor to the atmosphere, indicating that the microbial biofilter is not as effective," said Joye, a professor at the University of Georgia.

Among the flaws cited were an uncertain amount of how much hydrocarbon actually leaked, shortcomings of the scientific model used to make the projections, and a potential misinterpretation of the data.

For instance, "samples from the control stations and the low-oxygen stations that were analyzed for unique genetic markers in the January 2011 study showed no significant difference in the abundance of methane consuming bacteria," it said.

The model used in the study also "neglected important factors that affect the transport and biodegradation of methane... (and) only provided a tentative match of the observational data."

Co-authors included experts at University of California, Santa Barbara; Florida State University; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; University of Washington, Seattle; US Naval Research Laboratory; Scripps Institution of Oceanography; and Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research.

"Our goal is to understand what happened to the methane released," said Joye.

"And in the larger framework, to better understand the factors that regulate microbial methane consumption following large-scale gas releases," she said.

"I believe there is still a lot to learn about the environmental factors that regulate methane consumption in the Gulf's waters and elsewhere."

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