Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response from a Scientific and Engineering Point of View

NOAA released on early December 2012 an article regarding a collection of scientific papers about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America collection provides the first comprehensive analysis and synthesis of the science used in the unprecedented response effort by the government, academia, and industry.

2013.02.12 - Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response from a Scientific and Engineering Point of View

Papers present a behind-the-scenes look at the extensive scientific and engineering effort assembled to respond to the disaster. And, with the benefit of hindsight and additional analyses, these papers evaluate the accuracy of the information that was used in real-time to inform the response team and the public.

For the most part, information presented publically during the spill was accurate:

  • Oil was rapidly consumed by bacteria.
  • Seafood was not contaminated by hydrocarbons or dispersants.
  • The oil budget was by and large accurate. The only part of the oil budget that was later found to be inaccurate was the fraction of oil that was chemically dispersed versus naturally dispersed. That information had no impact on public safety, seafood safety or the response effort, but understanding the amount of oil that was dispersed chemically vs. naturally is important for future such efforts.

One of the most controversial issues concerned the rate at which hydrocarbons were spewing forth from the damaged well. The lengthy time it took for the scientific team to determine the flow rate led to considerable speculation that the government was withholding information. In reality, as described by the papers, the government/academic team charged with determining flow rate took the time they needed to get it right. The accuracy of the flow rates improved with time as more and better in situ data were acquired and more independent methods reported results.

Two overview papers and 13 specialty papers constitute a special collection of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill:

  1. Science in support of the Deepwater Horizon response
  2. Applications of science and engineering to quantify and control the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
  3. Composition and fate of gas and oil released to the water column during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
  4. Acoustic measurement of the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well flow rate
  5. Estimating oil concentration and flow rate with calibrated vessel-mounted acoustic echo sounders
  6. Chemical data quantify Deepwater Horizon hydrocarbon flow rate and environmental distribution
  7. Numerical simulations of the Macondo well blowout reveal strong control of oil flow by reservoir permeability and exsolution of gas
  8. Review of flow rate estimates of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
  9. Scientific basis for safely shutting in the Macondo Well after the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout
  10. Federal seafood safety response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
  11. Air quality implications of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
  12. Dynamic autoinoculation and the microbial ecology of a deep water hydrocarbon irruption
  13. Natural gas and temperature structured a microbial community response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
  14. Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes
  15. Impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a deep-water coral community in the Gulf of Mexico

In the paper “Science in support of the Deepwater Horizon response” lead author Lubchenco and her co-authors suggest that future oil spill response preparedness should include:

  • Gather adequate environmental baselines for all regions at risk;
  • Develop new technologies for rapid precise reconnaissance and sampling to support a timely and robust response effort;
  • Fill large information gaps regarding biological effects of oil, changing climate, and other simultaneous drivers of variability in coastal and aquatic ecosystems;
  • Require future oil extraction permits be conditional on having mechanisms in place to rapidly assess flow rate; and
  • Conduct research on the impacts of dispersants and dispersants-plus-oil on a wide range of species and life stages.

In another paper, “Application of science and engineering to quantify and control the Deepwater Horizon oil spill”, the unprecedented collaboration among government, academic, and industry scientists and engineers is described. Lead author Marcia McNutt, Ph.D., director of the USGS, explains how scientific and engineering information was crucial to guide decision-making for questions never before encountered, especially during the tense hours after the well was capped, but might still be leaking underground.

A final paper, “Scientific basis for safely shutting in the Macondo well after the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout”, further points to the unprecedented level of coordination among scientists, engineers, and emergency response officials in the public and private sectors. In this paper, scientists describe the geological hazards of shutting in the well and the conditions under which this could safely and successfully be done.

Sources: NOAA, PNAS

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