Where Did the Oil from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Spill Go?

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By J.P. Kelsey

A recent study has shown that there is a large accumulation of crude oil located on the ocean floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Findings have shown that the oil has formed a “ring” of sorts in locations close to where the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion took place in 2010. Since then, citizens and scientists alike have been concerned with where all of the leaked oil went. The research has begun to answer this inquiry, but its findings are likely to raise even more questions.

Deepwater Horizon (Image by the guardian.com)

Deepwater Horizon (Image by theguardian.com)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded study was headed by University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) Biogeochemist David Valentine, with UC Irvine and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) aiding in the research. “This analysis provides us with, for the first time, some closure on the question, ‘Where did the oil go and how did it get there?” said Don Rice in a statement released by the NSF. Rice is program director of NSF’s Ocean Sciences Division. Most of this newly discovered oil is within 25 miles of the well, but the environmental impact and source is yet to be fully agreed upon.

Even though evidence seems to suggest the oil is what is partially left over from the, approximately, 172 million gallons that were leaked between April and July 2010, BP has not taken responsibility and has contested implications made by the authors of the study. “The authors failed to identify the source of the oil, leading them to grossly overstate the amount of residual Macondo oil on the sea floor and the geographic area in which it is found,” BP said in a statement. The NSF research included 12 expeditions and over 3,000 samples collected from 534 locations.

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Locations of Sample Sites ( Credit: David Valentine et al)

The oil, which covers about 1,250 square miles and is about the size of Rhode Island, accounts for only 2 to 16 percent of all the oil leaked,however. The study focused on establishing amounts of Hopane in their samples. Hopane is a chemical component found in most all crude oil and deposits of such can be found throughout the Gulf of Mexico due to natural “seepage.” This is one reason BP has met the NSF findings with resistance, saying the samples contain Hopane that has deposited naturally. Valentine and his colleagues, though, say they stand by their findings and believe these deposits are a direct result of the 2010 oil spill. “First, the Hopane was concentrated in the top half-inch of the seafloor, indicating that it was deposited recently, and not from a long-term process like natural seepage,” said Valentine in a release. “Second, we found that hopane concentrations were much higher in the vicinity of the Macondo well, compared to areas further away.”

Hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon spill overlaid on sea floor bathymetry of the study area.

Hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon spill overlaid on sea floor bathymetry of the study area. (Credit: David Valentine et al)

Although it may be hard to convince everyone that the oil is from the BP spill and only a small amount of this oil has said to’ve been found, the research was not in vain. “These findings should be useful for assessing the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill, as well as planning future studies to further define the extent and nature of the contamination,” added Valentine. “Our work can also help assess the fate of reactive hydrocarbons, test models of oil’s behavior in the ocean, and plan for future spills.” The research was published in an Oct. edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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