Look What’s On The Menu — Crude Oil

Look What’s On The Menu — Crude Oil

by John Happs

30 November 2018


Nobody wants to see an oil spill. We know the ecological damage they can cause. There are also the enormous costs associated with the oil loss itself, the clean-up, the compensation for damage done, and loss of income for those whose livelihoods depend on an unspoiled environment.

There have been accidental major oil spills over the years, along with the deliberate dumping of 500 million gallons of oil by Iraqi forces during the 1991 Gulf War. Yet, in comparison to the total volume of oil that is shipped around the world each day, the volume of oil accidentally spilled into the oceans is relatively small.

The Exxon Valdez

What was the worst oil spill in history? Most people would incorrectly cite the 1989 supertanker Exxon Valdez disaster when the ship struck a reef off the coast of Alaska. Of the 53 million gallons of oil it was carrying, 11 million gallons were spilled into the Prince William Sound, an important regional habitat for seabirds, salmon, seals, orcas and sea otters.

Thousands of animals were killed by this oil spill and a large area used for fishing, recreational sports and tourism was closed. When the clean-up began, residents, conservationists and commercial fishermen were critical of the use of chemical dispersants to mix oil and water, forcing the oil to sink beneath the surface rather than drifting to shore. The application of dispersants remains controversial since the chemicals employed can be toxic to a wide range of marine species. The geography and low temperatures ensured that oil breakdown was slow, so the impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was evident for a number of years.

Green activists, ever anxious to protest about the extraction and use of so-called fossil fuels, will always strenuously exaggerate the impact of oil spills around the world. They will do this to promote their “no fossil fuel” agenda.

Not wanting to let a good opportunity go to waste, students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Energy and Environmental Reporting Project produced a report blaming anthropogenic global warming for the calving of an iceberg they claimed was the cause of the Exxon Valdez swerving and running aground.

Plastics are made from oil

Here we see a group of activists protesting at an oil platform:


They are probably not aware that their fiberglass kayaks, surfboards, and life-jackets were made from petrochemicals. So were the tyres on their bicycles and the road asphalt their bikes travel on. They are also unlikely to know that only around 70% of oil is used for fuel with the remainder going into petrochemical feedstock from which thousands of other products are made including their bicycle helmets, vitamin capsules, sweaters, candles, sunglasses, telephones, aspirin and salad bowls.

Perhaps Branco better portrays the irony:

Natural seeps and WWII

Most people are probably not aware that around 50% of the oil that enters the ocean comes from natural oil seeps scattered around the world. More oil seeps naturally from the ocean floor into the Gulf of Mexico every year than the 200 million gallons spilled from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident.

There are around 600 natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico alone, and many more can be found in Europe, Russia, China and North America. The state of California has oil seeps in 28 counties. Seepage has been ongoing for much of geologic time, eclipsing by far the volume of transported oil spilled into the oceans since the Industrial Revolution.

Why hasn’t this vast amount of oil accumulated over time and polluted all our beaches and waterways? Why hasn’t it resulted in the widespread destruction of ecosystems? Also, what has happened to the huge volume of oil spilled into the world’s ocean during World War II when submarines sank so many German and Allied oil tankers? According to the Military History Site: “The collective tanker sinkings of ww2 put that (Exxon Valdez spill) to miniscule proportions and insignificance.”

So where is all this oil now?

Some bacteria eat oil

Off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, single-celled organisms on the seabed are feasting on the oil from natural oil seeps. Scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory observed that microbial activity breaks down oil much faster than previously thought. The natural oil seeps that have occurred throughout geologic time have resulted in microbial adaptations to this organic food source.

Microbial ecologist Dr. Terry Hazen:

Our findings show that the influx of oil profoundly altered the microbial community by significantly stimulating deep-sea psychrophilic (cold temperature) gamma-proteobacteria that are closely related to known petroleum-degrading microbes. …

This enrichment of psychrophilic petroleum degraders with their rapid oil biodegradation rates appears to be one of the major mechanisms behind the rapid decline of the deep water dispersed oil plume that has been observed. …

These findings also show that psychrophilic oil-degrading microbial populations and their associated microbial communities play a significant role in controlling the ultimate fates and consequences of deep-sea oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hazen and his colleagues have identified the dominant microbe in the oil plume as a new species, closely related to members of Oceanospirillales family, particularly Oleispirea antarctica and Oceaniserpentilla haliotis.

Deepwater Horizon

In 2010 a blowout of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which was about 60 km from the coast in the Gulf of Mexico, leaked 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. This lead to substantial ecological damage, and the halting of commerce, tourism and fishing. BP paid around $27 billion in penalties, compensation and clean up costs.

But the lasting ecological damage predicted by environmental groups didn’t occur. Alarmists said the spill would still be evident in 40 years time. CBS News Network’s Melanie Warner warned:

This could mean a permanent end to the Gulf’s seafood industry and ten years from now … there will very likely still be seafood — shrimp, bluefin tuna and maybe snapper and grouper — that are contaminated with BP’s oil.

The alarmists were wrong. Most of the crude oil dispersed naturally. Hydrocarbon-consuming microbes rapidly increased in number to feast on the Deepwater oil spill.

Five months after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon, oil spill ocean bacteria had consumed at least 100 million gallons of oil. After five years there was little evidence to show there had been an oil spill in the area.

Dr. David Valentine, bio-geochemist from the University of California at Santa Barbara and Dr. Chris Reddy from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts are researchers into the microbial hydrocarbon diet. More specifically, they are looking at how those microbes are dining on the many complex compounds that make up the oil seeping from the sea floor. Valentine observed:

It takes a special organism to live half a mile deep in the Earth and eat oil for a living. There’s this incredibly complex diet for organisms down there eating the oil.

It’s actually a whole consortium of organisms — some that are eating the oil and producing intermediate products, and then those intermediate products are converted by another group to natural gas.

The biggest surprise was that microbes living without oxygen could eat so many compounds that compose crude oil. Prior to this study, only a handful of compounds were shown, mostly in laboratory studies, to be degraded anaerobically. This is a major leap forward in understanding petroleum geochemistry and microbiology.

Dr. John Kessler, from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Rochester, agrees that most of what was once a large underwater plume of oil and gas was eaten by the bacteria with the mixing of seawater triggering a microbial bloom explosion. This bloom included ethane-consuming Colwellia, aromatic-eating Cycloclasticus, alkane-eating Oceanospirillales, oil-eating Alcanovorax, methane-loving Methylococcaceae with other previously unknown species coming to the party. Dr. Carol Browner from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that marine microbes had devoured 50% of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill within 5 months.

The microbial hydrocarbon diet

There is no doubt that oil spills are bad news for adjacent ecosystems and are to be avoided at all costs. but to many microbes those spills represent a really good meal.