- The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico defied expectations. Scientists thought the spilled oil would end up on the surface and on beaches, but most actually stayed in deep waters, staining little-studied ecological communities.
- Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia, who headed up research on the spill’s effects, argues in the journal Science that quality baseline data before the spill could have helped determine the best way to tackle the oil and how the spill affected ecological communities.
- Efforts to collect baseline ecological data before drilling occurs should be funded by oil and gas companies as “the cost of doing business,” according to Joye.
When the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform burst into flame more than five years ago, it set off a chain of events that resulted in over two hundred million gallons of oil and at least 65 million gallons of oil equivalent of natural gas spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the deepwater Macondo wellhead. The spill, bigger and deeper than any before in the sea, defied expectations. Scientists thought the oil would end up on the surface and on beaches, but most actually stayed in deep waters, staining ecological communities that scientists knew little about. In a new commentary in the journal Science, Samantha Joye, a microbial geochemist with the University of Georgia, argues that more baseline data is needed across marine environments, especially as deepwater drilling has only gone deeper since the 2010 disaster.
“Best estimates now suggest that all discharged gas and up to half of the discharged oil were entrained in the Gulf’s deep waters,” writes Joye, who has headed up research on the impact of the oil spill for five years.
Moreover, up to 15 percent may have ended up in the soils of the seabed. But scientists had little pre-spill data on how these environments functioned and how they would react to any oil spill, let alone one of such magnitude. Even more than five years after the event, scientists are largely left guessing as to the fate of the bulk of the oil.
But, Joye argues, quality baseline data before the spill could have made a big difference in determining the best way to tackle the oil and how the spill overall impacted ecological communities.
“Baseline data describes natural environmental variation that results from long- and short-term changes in climate,” she said in a press release. “Without baseline data for a system, we live in an ‘invisible present.'”
Such data should include biodiversity surveys, ecological functioning, nutrient patterns and how microbes respond to oil and gas spills, according to Joye. It’s not surprising then that she noted that “baselines take years to establish.”
Joye is an expert on such data collection as she currently heads, a group of researchers with 14 different institutions devoted to studying the spill known as ECOGIG, or Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf. ECOGIG is currently collecting baseline data at places in the Gulf of Mexico where oil and gas is naturally seeping into the environment and at other untainted places, in order to compare and contrast.
Joye said that while scientists and governments should collaborate on collecting baseline data, these efforts should be funded by the oil and gas companies as “the cost of doing business.”
Despite the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico remains one of the biggest oil drilling areas in the U.S. According to the Energy Information Administration, offshore drilling in the Gulf supplies 17 percent of the U.S.’s crude oil and 5 percent of its gas. Yet, even here, baseline data is still lacking, according to Joye.
“Environmental baselines are sorely lacking across the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and other environments that are or may soon be affected by hydrocarbon extraction,” she writes
One such environment is the Arctic Ocean. Russia, the first country to do so, has been extracting oil from the Arctic seabed since late 2013 off the coast of western Siberia. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration recently gave permission to Royal Dutch Shell to explore for oil off the state of Alaska in a highly controversial bid for Arctic oil drilling.
“Given the expansion of oil and gas drilling into [more than] 1,500 meters deep waters—deeper than the Macondo wellhead—in the Gulf of Mexico and offshore Brazil and West Africa, the likelihood of another incident is a real threat,” Joye writes.
In the Arctic, Shell is drilling 2,438 meters below the surface, nearly a thousand meters deeper than the Macondo well — and in a region far harsher and more remote.
- Joye, S.B. (2015). Deepwater Horizon, 5 years on. Science 349(6248): 592-593.