Pros & Cons of Burning the Oil
The oil rig that exploded and sunk last week is likely to keep causing problems for a long time. About 1,000 barrels of oil are leaking from the well and into the Gulf of Mexico every day, and stopping the leak is so technically challenging that it could take months. So in the meantime, something needs to be done with all that oil, preferably before it reaches sensitive ecological areas on the shore. One possibility that was raised by the U.S. Coast Guard was to... set it on fire.
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard
If the oil reaches nearby shores, the problem might be compounded by the fact that these areas are ecologically sensitive and fragile, and the heavy machinery and human resources required to do a large-scale cleanup operation might cause as much damage as the oil itself.
This is one of the lesson from the Exxon Valdez spill:
Another lesson from the Valdez is that certain approaches do more harm than good. Steam cleaning rocks on beaches after the Valdez spill killed barnacles and mussels, says ecologist Dee Boersma of the University of Washington in Seattle. She adds that many of the birds people tried to save by washing with soap to remove the oil died anyway -- with only the added stress of the washing and human handling to show for it.
"Washing sand or rocks or birds doesn't do a lot of good," Boersma told Discovery News. "It just makes us feel better." (source)
This is from an oil spill that took place in the San Francisco bay in 2007. Photo: Wikipedia, CC
The combustion of a large quantity of unrefined oil in such sub-optimal conditions would no doubt cause very nasty emissions. But at this point, we have to ask ourselves what is the lesser of evils? If it would be worse for the oil to reach shore than to burn, the choice is pretty clear, but what if it's possible to keep the oil away from the land without burning it?
"BP is using floating barriers to try to keep the oil away from the Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana [and] Barriers will be also be placed in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida as needed to protect birds and areas sensitive to pollution," reports Bloomberg.
Would those kinds of measures be enough? Is it worth the risk? What if we take our chances and it doesn't work, and the oil reaches the shore?
Skimming the Oil
According to the latest reports, a little over 6,000 barrels of oil (mixed with water) were recovered by skimming crews. There were also "About 76,000 feet (23 kilometers) of oil- containment boom on the water and another 167,000 feet is ready," according to a BP spokesperson.
As another way to mitigate these disaster, we should probably keep more ships with oil-skimming capabilities ready to be deployed in oil-producing areas. It's only a way to treat the symptoms of a bigger problem, but it's better than nothing while we transition away from fossil fuels.
More on Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico
30+ Miles of Smoke: Satellite Photos Show Smoke Plume From Burning Oil Rig [Update: It Sunk]
Oil Leaks Caused by Sunk Exploration Rig Could Take Months to Stop, Even With Robots
Oil Spill Clean-Up in Gulf Takes Lessons From Valdez