C&B Notes

A Fortunate Surprise in the Gulf of Mexico

Systems are frequently much more complicated than people typically assume on first glance.  In this case, thank goodness.  As investors, however, we try to be especially watchful of this psychological misjudgment.

After spewing oil and gas for nearly three months, the BP PLC well was finally capped in mid-July 2010.  Some 200,000 tons of methane gas and about 4.4 million barrels of petroleum spilled into the ocean.  Given the enormity of the spill, many scientists predicted that a significant amount of the resulting chemical pollutants would likely persist in the region’s waterways for years.

According to a new federally funded study published Monday by the National Academy of Sciences, those scientists were wrong.  By the end of September 2010, the vast underwater plume of methane, plus other gases, had all but disappeared.  By the end of October, a significant amount of the underwater offshore oil — a complex substance made from thousands of compounds — had vanished as well.

“There was a lot of doomsday talk,” said microbiologist David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-author of the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  But it turns out “the ocean harbors organisms that can handle a certain amount of input” in the form of oil and gas pollutants, he said.

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The model showed that the topography in the Gulf had played a vital role.  Because the Gulf is bounded on three sides by land — north, east and west the — water currents don’t flow in a single direction as in a river.  Instead, the water sloshes around, back and forth, as if it were trapped in a washing machine.

An initial population of bacteria encountered the spill near the BP well, its population grew, and then it was swept away by the ocean currents.  But when the water circled back — that washing-machine effect — it was already loaded with these hungry bacteria, which immediately went on the attack again, mopping up another round of hydrocarbons.  These repeated forays over the BP well, by the ever-growing bacterial populations, sped up the rate at which the methane and offshore oil got devoured.

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