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Microbe consumption of methane in Deepwater Horizon spill highly overstated

The Deepwater Horizon Oil spill of April 20, 2010, released more than 500,000 tons of methane into the Gulf of Mexico during the 84 day attempt to seal the leaking oil well. New research conducted by Samantha Joye, professor of marine science in the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and colleagues published in the May 11, 2014, issue of the journal Nature Geoscience indicates that bacteria that consume methane naturally were responsible for eating only 50 percent of the methane produced in the spill. Previous media reports claimed all the methane was consumed by microbes.

A boy builds sand castle along the beach, days after a BP announcement that it is ending its “active cleanup” on the Louisiana coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, on April 19, 2014, in Grand Isle, Louisiana.
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

This research used samples taken from the Deepwater Horizon area before, during, and after the oil spill. The researchers proved that microbes consumed about 50 percent of the methane released during the oil spill event during the first 60 days. The rate of consumption of methane and oil by naturally occurring microbes decreased due to the lack of essential nutrients and the dispersal of the gas in an area that was so large the microbes could not have possibly accessed the entire region. The conclusion is the same as reported in Scientific American five days after the spill.

While many media personalities made claims that “nature” would control the oil and gas from the Deepwater Horizon spill research has proven those claims to be false. The multitude of advertisements by Gulf Coast fishermen claiming the quality of Gulf Coast seafood was superb have been proven false. These ads were funded by BP.

This research may help mitigate some of the environmental effects of the next major oil spill. We may have learned that we cannot trust the media, oil companies, state governments hungry for financial windfalls from a disaster, or fishermen desperate to maintain their income to report facts. Almost four years after the Deepwater Horizon spill new scientific studies indicate that most of what was claimed about the environmental impact of the spill by government and media was in error.

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