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Reflections on the Gulf Oil Spill—One year later

Dr. Richard Ambrose, Environmental Health Sciences Professor

Right now, the coastal ecosystem is not as healthy as it was before the spill. There are obvious signs of the oil still affecting some parts of the coast, including some wetlands, oyster reefs and beaches. But most of the oil that was on the surface of the ocean or came ashore is no longer visible, so it is not having obvious effects. A lot of the Gulf looks like it is back to normal, or nearly so.

The real problem is that we can’t get a good comprehensive assessment of the Gulf’s ecosystem health. If we take a snapshot of the Gulf’s health now, we naturally focus on adults and obvious elements of the ecosystem. What we can’t see are impacts to the larvae and juveniles of fish and invertebrates and mammals living in the Gulf. There are studies being done on these early life stages, but the results haven’t been made public year—and even still, experience in previous oil spills like the Exxon Valdez show that the effects may take a number of years to become apparent. There are already some observations, such as high mortality of young dolphins or unusually high numbers of fish with lesions, that could be harbingers of impacts to come in the future.

Most importantly, there is a large component of the ecosystem where we know almost nothing about how the oil affected the species living there. The studies that have been funded have mostly focused on the animals and plants living at the surface of the ocean and along the coast, but more oil stayed below the surface in this spill than in any other oil spill. We need to pay more attention to what happened below the surface of the ocean, especially in future deep-water oil spills.

One year is an insufficient amount of time to assess the damage.  For example, where the effects were to the young stages—which are generally the most vulnerable stages anyway—then it will take years before you would see an effect in the population of adults. Also, many effects will propagate through the food web, as effects on one trophic level are transmitted to the next trophic level. Especially when you are looking at the highest trophic levels—the dolphins, tunas, whales, birds, and so forth—it would take more than one year to see an effect.

It will be many years, possibly decades, before all the consequences of this spill are known. In fact, we likely will never know all the effects; some studies just won’t go on long enough, other studies (such as those directed at deep-sea effects) weren’t done, and some effects will be too hard to disentangle from the natural variability of the Gulf’s complex ecosystem.

The Oil Spill Commission Report is a very thorough, thoughtful analysis of the what happened—in terms of operations, response and effects. It presents a balanced view of the shortcomings of both the oil industry and the government regulators, and provides good recommendations for remedying many of those problems.

Some of the steps to prevent another catastrophe are already being taken. The agency responsible for regulating oil and gas development is being restructured to try to remove some of the built-in conflicts of interest it had when trying to simultaneously maximize revenue from oil and gas projects while regulating the same projects. Bureaucratic reorganization is not going to be sufficient, however. The agency needs to take the risks of oil and gas development, particularly deep wells, much more seriously, and Congress also needs to take these risks seriously and budget accordingly. Right now, this seems to be happening, but I am concerned about it continuing over the long term.

It remains to be seen whether the oil and gas industry will accept the Commission’s challenge to change its approach to business and make safety a priority. I hope they do, either on their own or with government oversight. The Commission provides the argument for why the industry needs to change, and even provides precedents from other industries, but this will not be simple.

There have been significant concerns raised about the ecological impacts of applying oil dispersants for decades, but very, very few studies have been done. It seems that the funding agencies, media, public and industry have a short memory about the problems experienced in a major oil spill, and after the major media blitz there is very little progress made in how we should respond to the next major spill. We should not let that happen again.

Dr. Eric M.V. Hoek, Civil and Environmental Engineering and California NanoSystems Institute Associate Professor

In the fall of 2009 I was introduced by a mutual friend to Kevin Costner; we were charged with initiating a research project at UCLA Engineering to evaluate his centrifuge technology for purifying oil-contaminated waters. Since Costner had such a hard time getting his oil-water separator accepted by the oil industry and government officials responsible for oil spill cleanup, the group started out looking at different applications like treating ‘produced water’ which is the oily and often brackish water that comes up during oil and gas production. We started out with a laboratory scale version of the centrifuge and separating laboratory prepared oil-water mixtures and really learned how to optimize the centrifuge. However, almost immediately after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened, we switched our focus back to oil spill cleanup. The team worked diligently day and night for more than a week to figure out how well the centrifuge could separate chemically emulsified oil from seawater. It worked great in the lab, but no one really had any idea how it would work in the Gulf.

The high-tech clean-up device referred to as the CINC centrifugal separator utilizes the force generated from rotating an object around a central axis. By spinning two fluids of different densities within a rotating container heavier liquids are forced to the exterior walls of the rotor while lighter fluids are forced to the center. The resulting separation yields waters with up to 99.9 percent purity.

Though the centrifuges come in different sizes, the V-20 CINC units, the largest of the models, can clean water at a rate of 200 gallons per minute. That means one V-20, which can be taken into the spill area via barges, can clean up 210,000 gallons of polluted water per day. Once separation has occurred, the oil is stored in tanks and the water is considered clear of crude.

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The oil spill in the Gulf was a shocking event—both in nature and magnitude. We cannot forget the loss of life, largely because of corporate pressure to "produce" rather than to value life and the environment over profits. I realized immediately after the spill occurred that I was working on a technology design for this specific type of disaster. In my first trip to the Gulf, I remember looking out the windows of our airplane and everyone asking what is that orange-brown stuff on the water. I said with some trepidation, "I think that is the oil. Oh my god, it is everywhere." I was right.

Over the course of the spill we contributed one of the most important advances in oil spill response in the past 20 years. In BP’s "Lessons Learned" document they note the two key innovations in the field of surface oil recovery as (1) advanced oil/water separation (our work) and (2) the "Big Gulp" skimming barges.

The business guys at Blue Planet Solutions (the company that evolved from the project known as Ocean Therapy Solutions) subsequently formed an alliance with the Big Gulp skimmer creators—a bunch of no nonsense Southeast Louisiana barge builders—to combine technologies and bring to market the most effective mechanical oil spill recovery technology on the planet.

I authored a white paper about our experiences in the Gulf last summer that helped to shape the final report submitted by the independent working group commissioned by the Graham/Riley commission. I would have liked to see the final commission report have a bit more teeth to it, holding the oil industry more responsible for the needed safety measures to address the inherent risks associated with deepwater drilling, but the report basically outlined the high level details of the problem.

I am now working directly with Thomas Azwell from UC Berkeley, one of the key authors of that report, to develop a remediation and restoration strategy for the Gulf coast. Kevin’s company, Blue Planet Solutions, is one of the major contributors to our remediation plan.