3Qs: When oil and water (and land) mix

Last year it was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and then another in China in early June and just last week, Montana suffered an oil spill, with an estimated 42,000 gallons dumping into the Yellowstone River. Jennifer Cole, director of the Environmental Studies Program at Northeastern, discusses how oil spills affect wildlife and irrigation, and emphasizes the need to reevaluate our dependence on fossil fuels.

What are the short- and long-term effects of an oil spill of this magnitude?

Oil is a troublesome pollutant because, when released, it separates into different phases, some of which can be extremely harmful. For example, some oil volatilizes out into the atmosphere where it pollutes the air and is toxic to living organisms. A portion, LNAPL (light non-aqueous phase liquid), floats on top of water and when that water is moving — as is the case in the ocean or the Yellowstone River in Montana — an oily froth is created that coats birds’ feathers and interferes with thermoregulation and flight. Other organisms living in or near the water are similarly affected, as the froth blocks sunlight from reaching the water column, effectively ending photosynthesis in that area and removing both a food source and a vital source of oxygen for aquatic animals such as fish. Other parts of the oil dissolve into the water, creating dissolved petroleum pollution, while the heaviest oil, DNAPL (dense non-aqueous phase liquid), sinks to the bottom where it coats rocks, plants and any benthic organisms.

Given these different phases, cleanup is difficult, and true remediation is often virtually impossible.

How are land and crops recovered after an oil spill? Are there any new technologies that play a role?

If land is coated with oil, there are two solutions: Either wait until weather washes and degrades the oil, or excavate the soil and incinerate the oil/sediment mixture until the oil burns off.  One can imagine this would not leave viable soil, and it is also not practical for vast agricultural fields.

The field of bioremediation uses microbes to break down oil the same way environmental factors would, albeit at a quicker pace. The area is populated with microbes known to decompose crude oil, and oxygen and nitrogen are commonly added to facilitate microbial respiration involving the breaking of carbon bonds. But this is expensive, time consuming and very labor intensive, so it is not done often.

Given the number of recent major oil spills worldwide, should there be stricter regulation on oil usage and pipe placement? Is it time to reevaluate our reliance on fossil fuels and explore alternative energy options?

There are strict regulations, but they are not always followed, and when spills occur, there is a small wrist slap and then we quickly revert to business as usual. I just put the finishing touches on an honors seminar entitled “Alternative Energy: Why Aren’t We There Yet?” where students will take a devil’s advocate approach to investigating alternative energy, and they will also talk about the pros of fossil fuels. I don’t believe there are such things as environmental problems, only economic problems. When it becomes less expensive to use alternative energy, we will use alternative energy. Government intervention could go a long way by taxing fossil fuel companies (or at least removing the baffling subsidies they are afforded) and giving incentives to companies developing, investing in and using alternative energy technologies.

It was time to reevaluate our reliance on fossil fuels a long time ago, but this political and economic issue is fraught with stumbling blocks, such as laying down new grids and infrastructure, using appropriate local energy sources, creating effective pricing structures, and most importantly, doing all this so alternative energy is cheaper than coal, oil and natural gas. In my opinion, we are a long way away.