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Lesson from the BP Spill — Where Did All the Oil Go?

ConservanciesGeorge P. Ahearn, Phd
Co-founder and Former President and CEO
GEO Specialty Chemicals, Inc.

 

We all remember the BP spill in 2010, but do we know where all the oil went? Thanks to science, a dispersant broke most of it up and it was bio-degraded.

This story is reprinted from Dr. Ahearn’s e-book “America’s Reluctant Transformation” published by Amazon in March, 2012.

The Ocean Horizon blow-out of 2010 was under control after 100+ days once the well was capped and oil was no longer spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. At that point all sorts of scientists, environmentalists, and government agencies were out there in planes and ships looking for the oil but couldn’t seem to find it, except for some disconnected patches. Some 40-60,000 barrels per day were released for almost 100 days, where did it all go?

BP Spill

A U.S. Air Force Reserve plane sprays Corexit over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Well, a small amount did find its way to the Louisiana shore line and wetlands, and maybe some tainted the beaches in Pensacola, and unfortunately some pelicans and turtles may have been lost but not many relative to their population. Some of the oil was burned, mostly at the site of the blow-out, some of the lighter components were evaporated by the warm temperatures in the Gulf, and most of the rest was broken up, dispersed into tiny droplets and bio-degraded by the many organisms or biota that inhabit the ocean. How can this happen so fast? Simply, the use of the dispersant, COREXIT 9500™.

The COREXIT™ Story

COREXIT™ has been the standard go–to dispersant in the oil industry for decades, it was developed by Exxon Production Research (EPR) a research affiliate of Exxon Corporation and Exxon Chemicals, and yours truly speaks with some knowledge about this, since I had a part to play in its development and application in major oil spills. Its inventor was a microbiologist named Dr. Gordon Lindblom, a friend and co-worker I met at EPR in 1962.

No matter what you read in the press, COREXIT™ is not Dawn™ or Joy™ dishwasher soap. The media love to use this over simplification. It is a unique class of chemical surfactant that is particularly effective at dispersing crude oil, which is different from most of the refined and natural oils that you and I come across in our daily lives.

Since the chemical was not patentable itself, Gordon was able to obtain a “use” patent for this class of chemicals in oil spills, which gave Exxon exclusive rights for these applications for 17 years. When I was promoted from EPR to Exxon Chemical, I encouraged Gordon to join our research organization and added COREXIT™ to our product line and encouraged him to develop better application techniques for offshore spills. He proceeded to become the world’s expert on aerial spray applications, designing specific equipment for aircraft used in these applications.

In the meantime, we contracted long-term toxicity studies to determine the effect of the dispersant on fish and other sea creatures, as well as evaluate its impact on the food-chain. The results showed no significant long-term toxic effects and none have ever been proven or illustrated, plenty have been speculated.

The Ixtoc  1 Blow-Out

In 1973, when the national Mexican oil company, PEMEX, had a blow –out on the IXTOC 1 platform off the coast of Cuidad del Carmen in the southern Gulf of Mexico, I was in charge of the chemical division involved with the COREXIT™ product and spent may weeks and trips to Mexico and the spill site convincing the PEMEX authorities in charge of the clean-up that COREXIT™ would prevent environmental damage to their beaches and resort areas.

BP Spill

Ixtoc I oil well. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

As the spill moved northeast towards the Texas coastline, the EPA would not permit us to use dispersants to prevent damage to the U.S. coastline at Padre Island. The Mexican government made the right decision and not one drop of oil  ever hit the Mexican coast, while Padre Island resorts were basically closed for many weeks  while the manual work of clean-up went on. The IXTOC spill went on for 10 months, although it was only in 100 ft. of water, it was worse than the BP spill in terms of total oil volume spilled.

BP’s Handling of the Clean-Up

I believe that the key to minimizing environmental damage in the case of BP was the sub-surface application of the dispersant directly at the well head, combined with the aerial application. This technology did not exist at the time of the IXTOC spill.

During the BP spill we heard rumblings from legislators how BP and the U.S. Coast Guard ignored President Obama’s executive order and the EPA to terminate the use of dispersants early in the process. Thank God they did, or our Gulf beaches would have been badly contaminated, our fishing and resort industries would have been in shambles, and a lot more pelicans and sea life would have been lost.

So that’s where all the oil went, it’s amazing that once the dispersant was able to break up the oil and increase its surface area, and thus it’s accessibility to these micro-organisms, how rapid the degradation process can be under the right conditions. The ability to apply the dispersant sub-surface at the point of the blowout was a key factor in its efficacy in this instance.

A Footnote

P.S. Exxon sold its Specialty Chemicals business and the COREXIT™ technology to Nalco Chemicals in the early 90’s and Nalco was the vendor to BP for the spill. To my knowledge no change was made in the formula and Exxon was not involved other than offering counsel to BP in its oil spill expertise. Exxon was not permitted by the U.S. government to use COREXIT™in the Valdez tanker spill.

Editor’s Note: While this story has nothing to do with gas per se, it reveals so much about oil and gas technology and the relentless innovation that characterizes it. It is this innovation that helped put a disaster into perspective and effectively manage it. It also provides a powerful lesson in “keeping one’s head” and not freaking out or over-reacting as is typical among fractivists and their ilk. This is not to make excuses for the mistakes made or to minimize what happened, but, rather, to emphasize the importance of cool heads, science and technology.

George P. Ahearn was the co-founder and President, Chief Executive Officer, and Chairman of GEO Specialty Chemicals, Inc. from its inception in 1993 until he left in 2005. The company specializes in water treatment, additives, and chemical process aids.  Prior to that time, he was President and Chief Operating Officer of the Hall Chemical Company, a maker of specialty metal-based chemicals from 1988-1992.  Mr. Ahearn was employed for 28 years by Exxon Corporation and Exxon Chemical from 1960-1988, holding various executive positions in research and the business.He was appointed in 2014 to the Board of Directors of Economic Incubators, Inc., a joint venture between Collier County and Enterprise Florida a business accelerator to assist the growth of entrepreneurial companies in the area.

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2 thoughts on “Lesson from the BP Spill — Where Did All the Oil Go?

  1. George: Excellent ilnformative article. I didn’t realize that you were so “close” to the development of the chemicals that helped to eliminate the oil after the spill!!

    Excellent — I hope that you convince your colleagues in Florida to permit more widespread fracking. Ohio’s economy as you know certainly benefited from this technology!! Best, larry mervine

  2. I am not at all reassured by Dr. Ahearn’s rose-colored remembrances of the BP disaster. “Out of sight – out of mind” and “what you can’t see won’t hurt you” is not how real science works. Follow the wikipedia link to the follow-on articles about the incident (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volume_and_extent_of_the_Deepwater_Horizon_oil_spill) and you will find this:

    “By 27 May 2010, marine scientists from the USF (University of South Florida) had discovered a second oil plume, stretching 22 miles (35 km) from the leaking wellhead toward Mobile Bay, Alabama. The oil had dissolved into the water and was no longer visible. Undersea plumes may have been the result of the use of wellhead chemical dispersants.”

    The devastation of the fishing and shrimping industry was not just the minor collateral damage he blandly portrays. The 11 who died and the burn victims that lived are not just a work place accident.

    The real story is not the real or imagined cost and benefits of COREXIT or that, as our editor says, it is an example of innovation in the industry. Nor is it that “cool heads” managed it or the Exxon Valdez. It is that they happened out a complete disregard for best practices or even minimum regulation. Natural gas has its own version of public relations and engineering disasters, waste water injection earthquakes and Dimock. They are brought up regularly by the trolls on this site and every public forum to try to derail gas development. The best way to avoid or minimize them is to make best practices the only standard for the industry.

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