BP Says Spill End Is In Sight, Critics Doubt It

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Richard Harris, science correspondent, NPR

BP capped the well, and the oil on the surface appears to be dissipating faster than many scientists expected. Now, BP predicts it's only weeks or even days away from sealing the well for good. But while new oil may stop flowing, nobody knows the extent of the damage the spill may have caused.

TONY COX, host:

It has been almost two weeks since BP finally capped its gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico, and scientists now say the oil on the surface of the Gulf appears to be dissipating faster than many expected. BP predicts it's only weeks, or even days, away from sealing the well for good. That's the good news.

But nobody knows the exact amount of oil that polluted the Gulf, how much may still lie beneath the surface or the full extent of the damage the Deepwater Horizon explosion may have caused to the environment or to people's livelihoods.

If you have questions about the latest progress on the spill or what's left to be done, including BP's efforts to seal the well for good, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Right now, NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris joins me for an update. Thanks, as always, Richard, coming by and helping us sort through all of this.

RICHARD HARRIS: Nice to be with you, Tony.

COX: The news today, of course, is that the oil slick on the surface of the Gulf, that it's shrinking - and faster, actually, than scientists have predicted. So where has all the oil gone, I guess?

HARRIS: That's a good question. Well, I think the reason it has disappeared so quickly is we had that tropical storm Bonnie last week that swept a lot of it north and west and right towards the delta of -some of it into the delta, and also churned some of it actually under the waves because the storms, that they come along - this - it turned out not to be as big a storm as they were expecting, but even so, there were big waves. And when waves come along, they mix things together, including mixing oil into the ocean water.

So the answer is, nobody really knows exactly where the oil is, but clearly some of it has washed up on beaches and barrier islands. Some -more of it, it was pushed into the marshes by the storm. And some of it was just churned under the water, where it's presumably either just still floating around, or some of it's being degraded by bacteria right now.

COX: Does this mean, then, that the threat to the environment in the Gulf is lessening significantly because of where we are today?

HARRIS: Well, it's certainly a less visible threat. When you could -when you look at the satellite photos now, you actually see very few places on the satellite photos where they actually have big, notable slicks. There are places where there's still sheen, which is sort of a light, glistening color that indicates, you know, that there's oil there. But it's a very thin layer of oil. But there still is oil in the environment, no doubt about it.

And the big unknown is how quickly bacteria in the environment - which have evolved to eat oil, actually - how long it'll take them, really, to digest all this oil. There's a - obviously, so much oil was spilled, and the bacteria have, to some degree, risen to the challenge. But, basically, we - it's hard to know. It takes time to figure out, also, what's going on under the sea.

COX: Don't we have some standard to measure this by, using and looking back at Exxon Valdez, for example, how long it took for that to be dealt with?

HARRIS: It's a comparison, but it's not a very exact comparison. And the reason is one of the real problems with the Exxon Valdez spill was it was in extremely cold waters, and the oil washed ashore very quickly because it was a single event, a - this shipwreck. Here, the oil, obviously, has been spewing, or had been spewing for almost three months. Gut the helpful part of this is it spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, which has very warm waters and much more accommodating to natural bacteria that actually are there. And oil is part of the natural environment.

Their oil has seeped up for thousands and thousands of years through the Gulf floor because it's a - you know, it's - we think of it as a synthetic material, but actually, native oil is actually a natural thing. And in the environment, these bacteria have evolved to eat them. So there - so it's actually better conditions, although much more oil, it's better conditions to have it broken in the Gulf.

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION. If you'd like to join the conversation, we are talking about the latest developments in the Gulf. We are joined here in Studio 3A by NPR's science correspondent, Richard Harris. Our phone number is 800-989-8255, and you can email us at talk@npr.org.

One of the things I wanted to ask you, Richard, was we had another incident in the Gulf, and it involved a second spill. The question that I have for you is how is significant that is, or is it relatively minor, if there ever is such a thing as a minor spill.

HARRIS: Well, there - obviously, any oil on the surface of the water is something that's undesirable, and it does do environmental damage. This, compared certainly to the BP blowout, is a very small spill. We don't actually have specific numbers. But a barge ran into an abandoned oil production platform and created a - you know, basically, broke it off, and I've seen photographs of sort of a big, spewing column of oil and gas, presumably mixed together, going up into the air. The one good piece of news about this is that they were so geared up to fight oil spills in the Gulf that they had plenty of material on hand to attack it.

They are, as of this hour, the last time I checked, they were actually in the process of getting somebody out there to try to shut down this runaway well. They have booms surrounding it to control and contain the oil spilling out from this well in Barataria Bay. So it's a - you know, it's - you know, marshes have been insulted by so much oil that any little additional amount of oil is really bad news for them. But on the other hand, in the general scheme of things, this is much, much smaller than the BP spill.

COX: We have a caller from Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose question, I think, is along the line of what we are talking about. Hello, Dave. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. This morning, I heard the new CEO from BP talking about cleaning up the surface and cleaning up the beaches and marshes. But they spent all the - they spent a lot of that dispersant (technical difficulties) allegedly sinks the oil to the bottom. And could you talk about - have they done any research on the - any dead zones that they're creating, either at midlevel or even at the bottom of the sea where, you know, a lot of the seafood-based food starts, right? Thanks.

HARRIS: That's true. There are - there is a lot of oil that is still under the surface of the ocean. It's hard to quantify it, again, but there are - have been numerous research vessels that are - that have gone out to take water samples and to measure both oil and natural gas, also, which has dissolved into the ocean water. And those do create some issues. In high concentrations, oil is toxic to seafood and to marine life. As the concentrations get lower, then the bacteria eats it, as I've mentioned.

But the flipside of that is the bacteria also consume oxygen in the course of eating up the oil. And if you're in a place where there's relatively little oxygen to begin with, you can create dead zones by these bacteria that come around and eat the oil. So that's a concern. That's something they're watching. And they have seen some degree of oxygen depletion in the area around the well. But they say the depletion is relatively minor compared to - you know, it's not serious enough to be considered as a dead zone or an immediate threat to the wildlife there.

So, you know, the Gulf is - gradually, this oil is diffusing through a large area of the Gulf, and that's going to help sort of distribute the damage. So you'll have a lot of low-level oil in distant places, but it also means - the positive side is that you probably won't have big dead zones the way that the Gulf does actually get every time - every year around this time of year, because nutrients washed on the Mississippi River, the same thing happens. The bacteria eat the nutrients, and then they eat so much of the oxygen in the course of doing that that, actually, very large dead zones do develop through, actually, agricultural practice, mostly in the United States. And so the oil spill is not creating something equivalent to that right now.

COX: That's a good call. Thank you very much. Here's another one from Aurora, Colorado. I hope I'm getting your name correct. Shielon(ph)? Or Shielon? How do you say it?

SHIELON (Caller): It's Shielon.

COX: Shielon. Thank you, Shielon. What's your question?

SHIELON: How are you doing? I was listening to NPR a couple of weeks ago, maybe. I think it was Richard reporting on the oil spill. And he was saying that a worst-case scenario is that they could produce the oil in the well. I'm wondering, why would that be a worst-case scenario? And why, you know, why do they have to cement it? Why can't they produce the oil?

COX: Shielon, thank you for that.

HARRIS: Well, obviously, they want - this - the well that's - that they're dealing with right now is in very bad shape. They don't actually know the condition, but clearly, it is in no condition to produce the oil. So you - the first thing you need to do is you need to get this broken well plugged up. And so that's step one, absolutely. And that's what really where things are right now, or we hope they will be in a week or so, that they will basically have this plugged a week or two -plugged and destroyed for this one well.

Looking forward, what happens beyond that is an open question, whether BP someday will come back and say, well, let's try again. Let's drill into this well again or finish the relief well, maybe, that's sitting nearby, that is sort of in a state of suspended animation right now, turn that back into a production well. That would involve, obviously, some permits. And I think that's more of a PR question for whether BP actually wants to - how, you know - what the headlines will read like when they say, well, BP's going back into this reserve that caused so much trouble to begin with. And we'll have to see whether and when BP has the nerve to decide to do that.

COX: I want to go - I going to circle back to something you talked about earlier: the bacterial growth and how that has helped, in a sense, in terms of sucking up, for lack of a better word, the oil that's out there. My question is whether or not that same bacteria growth could be harmful for other species in the water.

HARRIS: That's a good question. I can't give you a direct answer, except it's part of the natural marine food chain that are - these bacteria are a part of the ecosystem there. The question I can answer is, obviously, you'd have much more bacteria because there's so much oil out there for them to eat right now. So I think that that's the, you know, that's a question I can't answer. What I can also refer back to is the possibility that if the bacteria are way too active, they can use up too much oxygen, and then that makes life uncomfortable for organisms that need oxygen. So, in that sense, it could be a risk.

COX: Well, let's talk about some of the fish that are in that area, and whether or not they are - or how they are impacted by eating either other fish or anything else that has been touched by this oil that is -wherever it is in the Gulf, still.

HARRIS: Right. And that is something that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is keeping a close eye on, because they, among other things, ascertain the safety of seafood. And so one question is if these fish are eating contaminated - smaller contaminated organisms, at what point do you have to worry about the fish being contaminated? And there's an active sampling process going on there right now.

It's why a lot of the Gulf is still closed to fishing - not quite a third, but a big chunk of the Gulf area around Louisiana and Alabama coastline is closed off right now to fishing, because they aren't sure about that. But they're going to move carefully with that. They do -obviously, don't - they're concerned about a backlash. If they get something wrong and contaminated fish gets out in the market, then that would be really horrible for the fisheries and for everybody.

So their philosophy is one of caution, and they're keeping fisheries closed until they have a high degree of confidence that they can open them again. So that's working in our favor, I guess.

COX: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

All right, let's take another caller. This one is joining us - let's see - from - how about Laramie, Wyoming. Calvin, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CALVIN (Caller): Thank you very much. My question is, are - is the bacteria that's eating the oil being monitored, as far as levels? And is that going to be some kind of indicator as far as when this whole mess is, you know, on the downside?

HARRIS: Well, what they are measuring, or they're trying to measure, is the oxygen levels in the water, because that kind of gives them an index of how effective and how active the bacteria are. It turns out that the initial techniques that they were using to measure oxygen were not actually up to the task, and so they've realized that some of the earlier cruises don't give them as much information as they need. And they've revamped their research plans to do a better job of measuring oxygen, so they can do it. So if you measure the oxygen, that tells you how active the bacteria are. And from that, you can infer how many bacteria there are out there.

COX: There seem to be a lot of myths on the Web about the role of methane in this spill. We haven't talked about that so far. Maybe it would be worth mentioning, because there have been a several, I don't know, rumors, I suppose, would be one way to describe it, about methane pockets beneath the surface and elsewhere. What can you tell us about that?

HARRIS: Well I've certainly heard the Web rumors, or whatever. And they are - the scary scenarios that I've read are false, are completely wrong. But let me start with what is right, which is there - the well produced a huge amount of methane gas, in addition to oil. We always talk about the oil because it's visible. But there was a huge amount of methane that came out with it. And a lot of that methane dissolved in the ocean water, and so it's true that this well produced a huge amount of methane, most of it was in the water. Some of it rose as bubbles, but a lot of it just simply dissolved in the ocean water. Again, bacteria like to eat the methane, oxygen - we're back to that story again for the methane.

But that's one thing with methane in this well. The second thing is that this area is full of natural pockets of frozen methane called clathrates. And these frozen pockets are under the surface of the water, and they're stable when they're sitting under there. But if there's a big disturbance of some sort, like a - through it's history, or the sea level drops dramatically, that changes the amount of pressure that holds that methane in. And there have, apparently, been instances in earth's history where some of those methane ice formations sort of let go and put a lot of methane into the atmosphere. Methane happens to be a very potent gas for global warming, so there may be some feedbacks with -actually contributing to past episodes of warming on the planet.

So from that basic scientific, factual idea, some people got the idea that maybe we could have some sort of large, huge methane bubble coming up again and creating something like we saw during previous mass extinctions and so on. But one idea doesn't follow from the next. There's no major change in conditions down there that would release all of that methane gas that's under the surface of the earth.

COX: Under the surface.


COX: Well, let me ask one other question, as we begin to bring our conversation to a close. And I don't know, Richard, whether you would know the answer to this or not, but I had heard that one of the things you can do if you love seafood - like many of us do - to determine if it's good or not is the smell test, so to speak.

HARRIS: Mm-hmm.

COX: And I don't know whether this oil will have - will give a certain odor to fish, will it?

HARRIS: Actually, that is one of the main methods that the FDA uses to inspect seafood. They sniff it. And the nose is an extremely sensitive instrument. And if you have a trained nose, as these guys do, you can actually sniff it the way they can inspect coffee or various other things. Some of these food tests, even meat testing, sometimes, is done partially by smell. And these folks at the Food and Drug Administration who are ultimately responsible for the safety of the - of fish, do actually employ people who smell it and say, you know, it's a good instrument. It's a cheap instrument. And if you have somebody who know knows how to use it, that actually is fairly effective.

COX: Does it smell like motor oil?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: I actually don't know what the smell is, because I haven't actually been there when they were doing it. But I've certainly been reading about that.

COX: Final thing I'm going to ask you - with a brief answer, if you might: Are we optimistic now that we're, you know, we're getting somewhere, we're making some real progress with this?

HARRIS: I think - I am feeling certainly more optimistic than it was in the early days of this crisis. And I think that, yeah, I think that it's highly likely that in the next couple of weeks, we really will have the well sealed off. I mean, there are still years of work to be done to understand the environmental impact and to continue cleaning up, and so on. So the story is, by no means, over. But I think the crisis part of it is likely to be over the next couple of weeks.

COX: That certainly is good news, isn't it? Richard Harris is an NPR science correspondent. Richard, thank you very much for dropping by Studio 3A and sharing your information with us.

HARRIS: Always a pleasure.

COX: Tomorrow, what's next for Arizona's immigration law after a federal judge blocks key parts of it?

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

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