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Magnitude and oxidation potential of hydrocarbon gases released from the BP oil well blowout

Abstract

The deep-sea hydrocarbon discharge resulting from the BP oil well blowout in the northern Gulf of Mexico released large quantities of oil and gaseous hydrocarbons such as methane into the deep ocean. So far, estimates of hydrocarbon discharge have focused on the oil released, and have overlooked the quantity, fate and environmental impact of the gas1. Gaseous hydrocarbons turn over slowly in the deep ocean, and microbial consumption of these gases could have a long-lasting impact on oceanic oxygen levels2. Here, we combine published estimates of the volume of oil released1,3, together with provisional estimates of the oil to gas ratio of the discharged fluid4, to determine the volume of gaseous hydrocarbons discharged during the spill. We estimate that the spill injected up to 500,000 t of gaseous hydrocarbons into the deep ocean and that these gaseous emissions comprised 40% of the total hydrocarbon discharge. Analysis of water around the wellhead revealed discrete layers of dissolved hydrocarbon gases between 1,000 and 1,300 m depth; concentrations exceeded background levels by up to 75,000 times. We suggest that microbial consumption of these gases could lead to the extensive and persistent depletion of oxygen in hydrocarbon-enriched waters.

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Figure 1: Map of the study domain.
Figure 2: Depth profiles through the water column.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the US National Science Foundation’s Biological and Chemical Oceanography Programs (OCE-1043225 to S.B.J.) and the NOAA National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (award numbers 0710028 and 0810031 to S.B.J. and I.R.M.). We thank J. Slaughter (UGA) for analytical assistance and K. Bowles, M. Bowles and C. Meile for providing comments that substantially improved the manuscript.

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S.B.J. and V.A. participated in the cruise; S.B.J., I.R.M. and I.L. carried out the gas flux calculations; S.B.J. wrote the paper and other authors provided comments/feedback.

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Correspondence to Samantha B. Joye.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Joye, S., MacDonald, I., Leifer, I. et al. Magnitude and oxidation potential of hydrocarbon gases released from the BP oil well blowout. Nature Geosci 4, 160–164 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1067

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