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Ensign Jason Radcliffe/U.S. Coast Guard/AP

Crude methods

Science | Fighting an oil spill hasn't changed much in 20 years, but some experts are thinking ahead

Issue: "Gulf toil," June 5, 2010

How to clean up an oil spill? In the first three weeks after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP strung out over 1 million feet of floating barriers to halt or redirect the slick, collected millions of gallons of oil and seawater, and even burned oil directly off the water surface. The company used an unprecedented amount of detergent-like chemicals called dispersants-more than half a million gallons-to break down the oil and allow it to decompose naturally in the ocean. The chemicals, though, are hazardous in concentrated form, and their final impact on the Gulf remains to be seen.

Crude oil can cause lung, kidney, and liver damage in animals that ingest it. Ocean-dwelling microbes feast on the oil but not efficiently unless it's first thinned down and dispersed in the water. Critics say contemporary cleanup methods are hardly more advanced than those used to mitigate the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill-but some forward thinkers are experimenting with new ways to deal with the problem.


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• Mechanical skimmers suck oil and water from the ocean surface and pump it into containers.

• Chemical dispersants break down oil into droplets, allowing it to biodegrade by weathering and bacterial digestion.

• Booms collect oil into pools for controlled burnings.


• One company has invented a clay-and-plastic "sponge" that absorbs oil but not water. The sponges could be spread out over a spill site, collected, and later reused.

• Bacteria that are genetically engineered to devour crude rapidly could be seeded at spill sites. (They currently only thrive in labs.)

• "Superwetter" surfactant chemicals could be used to force the slick to contract into pools, allowing more efficient burns.

Oil rigged bill

After months of delay, U.S. Senators John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., unveiled a climate bill on May 12 calling for a 17 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050. President Obama immediately endorsed the measure.

Ironically, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has handicapped the bill's chance of success: No other Republican immediately stepped forward in support of the legislation after Lindsey Graham of South Carolina withdrew as a co-sponsor in the wake of the Gulf spill and "immigration politics." In spite of a late amendment giving states the power to veto risky offshore drilling proposals, the bill's incentives for drilling have turned sour to some Democrats from coastal states: "Unless that proposal is eliminated, I cannot support the climate change bill," said Florida's Bill Nelson.

Carbon racket

Twenty-five surprise arrests in late April jolted the world's largest carbon-credit-trading scheme-the European Union's Emissions Trading System-in an ongoing tax fraud investigation spanning the continent and the British Isles. Officials in Germany, Scotland, and England raided hundreds of homes and corporate offices (including Germany's Deutsche Bank, where seven employees were questioned), freezing bank accounts and in some cases seizing computers and memory sticks in a crackdown on "carousel fraud." The fraud occurs when sophisticated criminals set up elaborate business transactions across member state lines in order to collect and pocket Europe's value-added tax, which is often applied to the carbon credits.

German investigators say their suspects have helped siphon $238 million from government revenues. The problem peaked last year, when about 27 percent of the emissions trading market involved fraudulent transactions.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.


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