Methane from the Gulf Oil Spill may not have Magically Disappeared

POSTED May 26, 2011
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This post is something of an update to a post I wrote last October, an uncharacteristically optimistic post concerning the Gulf oil spill. Here’s a link to the post, but the upshot of it is that a study was published that the methane released by the broken Deepwater Horizon well was being eaten and thereby degraded by methane-ingesting bacteria in the Gulf. These bacteria, the report suggested, eat methane between 10 to 100 times faster than we used to think they could. Another study that came out last January effectively gave the all-clear, the methane-eating bacteria had consumed pretty much all of the methane from the Gulf spill, rendering all sourpuss Gulf residents’ complaints moot. Let’s all just eat some oysters, okay?

Recently Dr. Samantha Joye, a University of Georgia Marine Sciences researcher who was on the scene conducting research at the Gulf throughout the spill, and 15 others published a study questioning the methods and conclusions of the two earlier studies. Chiefly, the Joye paper calls into question the idea that the bacteria managed to consume the methane column. From what I can gather, our understanding of the movement of gases like methane and the bacteria that eat them aren’t sufficient to make the kind of jumps to conclusion that the Joye paper seems to call the others out on. In effect, we — or the authors of the papers — can rightly say that the methane was consumed; it could very well still be out there.

The paper argues that earlier studies based their conclusions largely on the appearance of what are called dead zones, areas of depleted oxygen where fish and most other sea life can’t survive — it’s a bit akin to altitude sickness among humans — created by anaerobic bacteria that consume methane. During consumption, the bacteria also use up the oxygen in the area, and as life forms that can thrive by eating methane and survive in areas without oxygen, they’re classified as extremophiles. Tracking dead zones is effectively tantamount to tracking the anaerobic bacteria that consume methane. Or is theoretically. Dead zones appear naturally and seasonally in the Gulf anyway, so it’s possible that the other researchers attributed some zones incorrectly to methane columns from the Gulf spill.

Joye and her colleagues aren’t necessarily interested in reviving the anti-corporate sentiment that arose during the Deepwater Horizon spill; rather, they appear more concerned that science in the two earlier papers was well-done. These findings and methods, if taken sincerely and as accurate as the scientific community has thus far, could provide the basis for future research into tracking methane and anaerobic bacteria to predict and possibly counteract the effects of climate.

Methane, is after all, numero dos to CO2 as far as the potent impact of greenhouse gases go. The problem is enough that cows are categorically blamed by serious researchers for their negative impact on GHG contribution through their flatulence. If the findings of the two previous papers are incorrect, if anaerobic bacteria isn’t capable of consuming far more methane than we previously thought, ecologists are at risk of using bad models and coming up with overly confident predictions about climate change. These predictions are meant to form the basis of global policy and if, as one can read between the lines, the two earlier, optimistic papers were the result of a desire to help push the whole nasty Gulf spill mess out of the collective consciousness, then, the Joye paper authors contend, that is a problem.

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