When the April 20 explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico led to one of the largest oil spills in history, UCSB scientists sprang into action — quantifying and studying the spill to improve clean-up efforts and hopefully prevent such spills in the future.


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A photo taken by the Valentine cruise, pictured above, shows plumes of smoke from the natural gas burn-off in the gulf.

Santa Barbara has had an infamous history with offshore oil spills. In 1969, a blow-out on an offshore oil rig near the Santa Barbara coast resulted in approximately 200,000 barrels of crude oil seeping into the waters and coastline, damaging beaches and killing wildlife. The spill became the catalyst for many offshore drilling laws as well as the establishment of Earth Day and UCSB’s Environmental Studies Dept.

According to Ira Leifer, a researcher at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute and a member of the government-appointed Flow Rate Technical Group, UCSB is also an ideal university for oil spill research because of prolific natural oil seepage unique to the local coastline.

“Geology has provided us with natural seeps — oil spills for scientists every day,” Leifer said. “Because of the seeps, UCSB has a well-justified reputation for research into oil spills.”

Counting the Consequences

David Valentine, a professor of earth science at UCSB, recently returned from a research cruise of the Gulf after he proposed a new method for quantifying the scope of the spill. Valentine, who received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the spill, has done extensive research on microorganisms that consume the natural gas and other hydrocarbons that seep from the Santa Barbara seafloor.

Valentine said his team has been monitoring the concentration of natural gas around the spill and noticed that the gas has been dissolving in the water and displacing oxygen.

“We can say we see large-scale layers of natural gas around the spill site,” Valentine said. “Within six-eight miles around the spill, there are trapped layers of natural gas at around 10-100,000 times natural background levels. There is a significant loss of oxygen [in the water], between five to 35 percent from where the levels should be.”

The presence of millions of gallons of additional natural gas in the spill area, Valentine said, will have a disastrous effect on ecosystems surrounding the region, and could accelerate growth from the oil-consuming microorganisms.

In fact, these microorganisms probably have the most to gain from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

[media-credit name=”Jon Kopecky” align=”alignright” width=”166″][/media-credit]“Clearly, the hydrocarbons are going to affect them,” Valentine said. “Hydrocarbon oxidizers will become ecologically dominant.”

Since these microorganisms are currently so low on the food chain, Leifer said, what affects these microorganisms’ survival and success will have much larger consequences throughout the food chain.

“The focus has primarily been on … things that people eat,” Leifer said. “The concern I would have is in the … the very low levels of the food chain, because if they are affected by the oil, the oil affects [the rest of the food chain].”

According to Valentine, he and his team were also interested in what impact the use of synthetic dispersants has had on seawater composition and local marine life, including these oil-hungry microorganisms.

“Microorganisms produce their own dispersants, so we would like to see how factory-produced dispersants affect them, as well as how they disperse and consume the oil.” Valentine said.

Struggling for Science

Leifer said he has been trying to research the Deepwater Horizon spill since it occurred. His project, Deep Spill II, consists of a series of scientific experiments that seek to study the spill as it occurs, since the occurrence of such an event is rare and may provide scientists with a better understanding of how deep oil leaks behave.

“If we don’t learn about the spill while it is happening, we are really letting down the next generation,” Leifer said.

Unfortunately, according to Leifer, BP has not permitted him to perform the experiments.

“I’ve been trying since May 1, but I sense that there is always a new reason why it should not happen,” Leifer said.

BP, after a few unsuccessful attempts, has tried again to cap the well on July 12. While the new cap has been placed, tests to verify if it has achieved containment are still pending.

“The new cap is on,” Leifer said. “Hopefully the new cap will achieve 100 percent containment.”

According to Leifer, the project will seek to ensure that the scientific response to future spills is well-organized.

Looking Into the Future

Valentine said he will continue to analyze the data from the Gulf.

“We are going to work up the samples we have, go through the initial round of publications,” Valentine said. “We’ll see where to go from there.”

In order to deal with future spills, Leifer has proposed the addition of a dedicated oil spill research department at UCSB.

“What I am proposing, with the support of students in the university, is that there should be a permanent spill research center here at UCSB.”

“When science happens, everyone wins,” Leifer said.