Gas Contributes To Spill Damage In Gulf Liane Hansen talks with Florida State University professor Ian MacDonald about not just the oil that's damaging the Gulf, but the toxic gas as well.

Gas Contributes To Spill Damage In Gulf

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Joining us now from member station WFSU in Tallahassee is oceanography Professor Ian McDonald. Welcome back to the program.

Professor IAN MCDONALD (Biological Oceanography, Florida State University): Hello, Liane.

HANSEN: So the new numbers were released from the government at the end of the week, 20 to 40,000 barrels of oil coming out each day from the floor of the Gulf. The riser pipe has been cut, so they're capturing about 15,000 barrels per day, but there are - I mean, still tens of thousands of barrels spewing into the Gulf.

If BP had had a better grip on the quantity coming out, would that have helped them capture the oil? How would it have helped them?

Prof. MCDONALD: Decisions made very early on in this to not look as closely and objectively at the true numbers as possible have really hurt us in perhaps being underprepared for the pressures and the volumes of oil that were being ejected.

Recall that for many months - or many weeks, rather, BP insisted that 5,000 barrels per day was the accurate number. And they were out there with a mud pump to try this top kill operation and that mud pump was capable of 8,000 barrels a day. So they thought they'd be able to overcome the pressure with that kind of force. And they completely underestimated what they were up against.

And now, as they've got this - they cut away the riser, which actually increased the flow because the kink was then gone - the ship capacity on the surface is only 15,000 barrels a day. And that seems very unfortunate that we - just as we begin to get a handle on it, we haven't got the ship to put the oil into. So...

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about the stuff that's coming out besides oil and what happens to it when it hits the water.

Prof. MCDONALD: There's three times as much gas in a volumetric sense coming out as there is oil. And, of course, we're most concerned about - we've been most focused on the oil because it's visible on the surface and it's killing birds in Louisiana and washing ashore in Florida. So it's a very acute problem.

But the gas volumes are absolutely staggering. And this gas, most of it dissolves or forms hydrates that hang in the deepwater layers. And what they do is they initiate microbial activity, so they're attacked by bacteria which treat the oil as - or treat the gas, rather, as a foodstuff. And they break it down just like that they would any other food, they respire. And to do so they consume oxygen and they release CO2.

Well, there is nothing natural at all about, you know, tons and tons and tons, you know, probably millions of tons of gas being injected into the deepwater layers. And the oxygen is pulled down at an alarming rate to alarmingly low levels. And every oceanographer I've talked to, and bio-geochemist, is deeply concerned about the impacts that these could have.

HANSEN: I'd like to ask you a personal question, if I may. How does the oil spill actually affect your work and research, not just today but down the road?

Prof. MCDONALD: Well, there was an interesting moment last week. I was at a meeting of a number of oceanographers and marine scientists in St. Petersburg. And we were talking about the research needs and then infrastructure needs that we had to support the questions that were so urgently needing to be considered.

And we had in the room with us a gentleman, a lab director from Alaska and a veteran of the Prince William Sound work. And he began talking about his life and, you know, what his work was like. And I think, one by one, all the scientists in the room and all of the technicians and everybody there suddenly realized that from here on out, our careers, the work that we do is going to have the imprint of this oil on it.

HANSEN: Oceanography Professor Ian McDonald joined us from member station WFSU in Tallahassee. Thank you.

Prof. MCDONALD: Thank you, Liane.

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