Unseen Oil Continues to Damage the Environment. BP Corporate Recklessness in Stark Contrast to "Reasonable Person" Criteria

TASA ID: 897

Just because you can't see the crude oil from the BP Oil Spill of 2010, doesn't mean it is not continuing to damage the environment and kill marine organisms.  Crude oil can occur as free product when the local concentration of the crude oil exceeds solubility of the compound in water.  In this case (in the immediate vicinity of the oil), the water column is completely saturated (depending on pressure, temperature and the chemical characteristics of the compound).  Since the density of crude oil is lighter than water, it floats on top of the water (ocean water, groundwater, etc.).  In the open marine environment, floating free product occurs when concentrations are too high to be dissolved in the sea water due to lack of time for the dissolution process to occur, when there is too high a concentration of the contaminant in the water, when there are low temperatures, or other factors.

Crude oil can also occur in other forms as well, such as micro droplets.  In these cases, a microscope may be required to see micro droplets. Crude oil can also be dissolved in water.  The way scientists know it is there is by sending a water sample to the chemical laboratory for analysis.  One way to analyze the water is by using a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer.  This piece of equipment provides a quantitative concentration of the crude oil in solution.  Typically the results might be described in milligrams per liter (mg/L), or sometimes it is referred to as parts per million (ppm).  Some laboratory analytical chromatographs have detectors that are so accurate and precise that they can analyze down to parts per trillion (ppt) for certain chemicals.  Just because we can't see the crude oil in the water doesn't mean it is not there or that the crude oil is not still damaging the environment in a large and significant way.

The press releases and articles from universities (University of Georgia (UGA) and government agencies (NOAA and others) continue to state that the amount of dissolved crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico related to the BP Oil Spill of 2010 is significant.  Based on my review of the data I have examined, I would agree with this conclusion.  Although most of the crude oil is dispersed into microscopic- sized droplets or dissolved in the marine water column, the remaining crude oil is creating significant damage to microscopic marine organisms which are at the bottom of the food chain in the Gulf of Mexico.  Other fish, marine mammals (toothless whales, also called baleen whales, for example) and others eat the phytoplankton and other microscopic organisms.  Although we cannot see the drops of oil, the dissolved crude oil in the water column will likely damage the fish larvae, coral larvae, and small fish which are susceptible to the toxins contained within the crude oil.  These microscopic or extremely small food sources are an important part of the diet for the toothless whales as well as many fish and other marine life in the food chain.  A major decrease or damage to this critical food chain will hurt not only the microscopic marine life, but also the largest marine mammals and fish as well.

As of mid August 2010, there have been well over 57,000 measurements collected by an army of scientists, engineers and regulators in the Gulf of Mexico.  From these studies, it appears that an underwater plume of crude oil more than a mile wide and 650 feet from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico exists at depths of 3,000 to 4,000 feet. 

If all the residual crude oil were to be consumed by marine microbes that use oxygen for respiration (aerobic bacteria), large dead zones would develop as the limited oxygen in the water column would be used up in the process of the microbes consuming the crude oil.  Removal of large amounts of dissolved oxygen creates dead zones, where fish, coral and other marine organisms will not have the required oxygen for respiration.  One solution is to pump enormous quantities of oxygen into these zones to prevent dead zones from occurring.  Oxygen concentrator machines that use a special molecular filter allow oxygen to be collected, while the nitrogen is released.  Since the atmosphere contains about 78.09% nitrogen and 20.95% oxygen, the oxygen concentrators are reasonably efficient, and this technology is used in environmental remediation, medical and industrial processes.  Using large-scale oxygen diffusion technologies and oxygenating the marine waters near the most impacted areas would solve the problem of dead zones and would help remove the crude oil by allowing aerobic microbes to consume the contaminant.  Critics would say it would be very expensive, time consuming and technically difficult.  The answer is, yes, it would be expensive, time consuming and technically difficult.  On the other hand, any resource company that plans to extract resources (oil, minerals, etc.) should evaluate the risks of extraction (drilling, in this case) and provide the needed protection to guarantee that any spill or release could be quickly contained and environmental damage from a potential spill could be minimized.  Evidently this precaution was not taken into account to the degree needed prior to the Deep Water Horizon accident. 


As a standard or test for what seems like common sense, in court rooms throughout the nation, attorneys frequently ask experts and witnesses of an event or an action, "What would a reasonable person do?"   This criterion seems like a worthwhile question as it pertains to the recent BP Oil Spill of 2010. 

On a small-scale, house-size example, I might suggest what a reasonable person might do to minimize catastrophic damage from a paint can falling from a ladder onto a floor.  Although my wife has anxiety and enormous reluctance about my home improvement projects, I do some indoor painting.  Lest I get yelled at later, I routinely think about spill and leak precautions prior to a painting project.   I don't want to spill on the carpet or wood floors.  Obviously, I don't have a written safety and spill prevention plan when I paint, since the risks are minimal, and no one will be affected by my poor painting techniques but my family.  Nonetheless, I still want to minimize the chances for spills and paint leaks and consequently being yelled at.  I for one, use painters drop cloths and plastic sheeting to collect possible spills.  I also have a few rags around to contain a spill or splatter.   I might have a bag of baby wipes as a precaution against leaks.  I also have a trash bag or trash can around so that if the paint can were to tip over on the plastic sheeting, I can get the spilled paint and messy can into a plastic bag or trash can to contain the mess.  I don't think these simple precautions against the potential paint spill are unreasonable, time consuming or expensive, considering the risks of large volumes of paint on an oak floor or new carpet.  Looking at Home Depot, Loews, Sears, Orchard Supply, Ace Hardware and other stores that sell paints and painting supplies, it is apparent that I am not alone in trying to minimize the risk of catastrophic paint spills, leaks and other painting disasters on a small-scale basis.  Based on all the products to minimize small-scale painting disasters found in the well-stocked stores mentioned above, I would suggest that most reasonable persons would use similar precautions as well. 

With the BP oil spill, the stakes are exponentially much higher, and most reasonable engineers, safety experts and scientists associated with this type of resource extraction activity should have developed an emergency plan with the proper backup systems in place so that if a disaster were to occur, damage could be contained and minimized. 

I worked in the oil industry as an exploration geologist for about a decade.  I spent several years with SOHIO Petroleum, a petroleum exploration and producing company that was later bought by BP.  Based on my experience, I suggest that many of the hard working engineers, scientists and safety professionals that I worked with were responsible and reasonable people.  Those still working in the oil industry probably still fit that profile, and they would be the type of people to be cautious on a personal basis as well.   

By contrast, the corporate recklessness of BP and the lack of reasonable plans for containment and disaster mitigation seem a stark contrast to the type of people whom I worked with two decades ago.  In the BP spill case, it is likely that safety and the environment were not stressed at the highest level of corporate management, and consequently, those responsible for developing the risk assessment procedures and safety and spill response plans were not thinking of the potential unlikely, but catastrophic events that might happen.  Simple oil drilling risk and safety assessments would have easily highlighted the need for special precautions in spill and leak response.  We can now only learn from this example. 

In sum, although it is good news that the observations of floating crude oil have diminished significantly in the bayous, marshes and beaches of the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, the environmental and economic devastation from the residual dissolved and microscopic crude oil droplets will continue to provide large-scale environmental damage for many years to come. 

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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