Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts.
We’re going to be living with this slobbering beast in the Gulf of Mexico for a long time.
We can rage and cry and run in fear from any trace of it. Those of us on the Gulf have done all three.
But at some point we’ve going to have to look this monster hard in the eyes, and discover its strengths and its vulnerabilities. And if we’re going to devise a monster-fighting strategy that really works, we’re going to have to understand precisely why oil is a threat to us and the Gulf we love.
The problem isn’t the oil itself, exactly — it’s oil in the astonishing, overwhelming quantities now pouring into the Gulf.
After all, oil isn’t an alien from outer space. It is, as Rush Limbaugh enjoys reminding us, a product of good old Mother Earth, right out of a hole in the ground. If Rush knew a little more about oil and where it came from, he might even come to realize that we all have a deep, genetic attraction to it.
I’ll confess that I’m fascinated by the oils of nature. Not just the stuff we put in our cars — I hold my nose and learn to live with it just as you do.
But I go out of my way to brush up against the rosemary plant in the garden. I relish the odor of the volatile oils it releases. I salivate for the oils in blueberries and olives and other fruits and vegetables. I even like the rainbow sheen of plant oils as they spread out, very much like a miniature slick, in the blackwater swamps and sloughs of the Southeast.
In some ways, there’s not much difference between these oils and the petroleum oils out in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re all largely made of carbon compounds called phenols. In essence, phenols are nothing more than the essential molecules of life — oxygen, hydrogen and carbon — arranged in various patterns and chains.
And why should we be surprised? The oil that you’re using in your car, which is distilled from the same oil blowing out of the Deepwater Horizon hole in the Gulf of Mexico, comes mostly from plants and plant-like organisms.
In the case of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil stores, we’re talking 150-million-year-old plant remains — mostly from the tiniest and most primitive plant-like organisms, the phytoplankton. These plankton settled onto the floor of a shallow sea over millions of years, were buried under sediment, and have been gradually concentrated into a thick goo deep below ground.
But at its core, this goo is still, in many ways, chemically identical to common plant oils. Petroleum oils are so closely related to plant oils that we now reverse engineer the petroleum to produce beneficial compounds we once got directly from plants. The aspirin you take was created by modifying petroleum oil so that it is virtually identical to the salicylic acid we once extracted from willow trees.
So if it’s all so natural, why are we making such a big deal out of this spill?
Well, the first question you should ask yourself is why plants and plankton produce such an abundance of these complex natural oils in the first place.
The phenolic oil sheen I see so often in my favorite blackwater swamps seems to be largely a product of the great bald cypress trees that dominate those swamps. Old bald cypress wood is legendary for its ability to resist rot, which it does by producing and concentrating oily phenolic compounds that are highly toxic to fungi and insects.
If you were bold enough to eat enough of a cypress board, those compounds would likely be just as toxic to you (supposing you survived the indigestion).
Plants are amazing chemical laboratories, and they’ve been experimenting with these simple carbon compounds for many years, rearranging them into substances that can fight cancer or promote it, whet your appetite or take it away, nourish you or make you sick as a dog. Some compounds, such as chloroform, can even kill outright.
Petroleum oil is a stew of all these natural phenols and other carbon compounds. By some estimates, there are 1,000 or more phenolic compounds in the oil spill spreading through the Gulf of Mexico, some of them beneficial, some benign, some unusually toxic.
In natural settings, these toxic compounds are typically found only in relatively small quantities, and they’re usually deployed so that they target only the creatures that attack the plants.
The oils that naturally escape into the environment are typically cleaned up pretty quickly by exposure to air and water and the natural oil-eating bacteria that are abundant in the Gulf. The most dangerous compounds, the ones that are most toxic, are the ones that typically get cleaned up first.
The Earth has learned to live with and prosper from the small doses of oil that leak constantly into the environment, from many sources.
But when you start concentrating all these compounds over millions of years in vast stores of petroleum oil, and then you begin releasing them in millions of gallons per week into the nation’s most productive fishery, you’re unleashing toxins in quantities that the Gulf and its oil-eating bacteria aren’t prepared to deal with. This spill is so big, it even threatens to destroy the oil-loving bacteria that normally would clean it up.
That’s how we’ve made something as natural as oil into a monster.
But understanding this oil beast a little better will help us to devise solutions that work, and to reject those that don’t. In this space over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at how The Nature Conservancy is using its science and expertise to do that sifting. So stay with us.
(Image: Heavily oiled Brown Pelicans captured at Grand Isle, Louisiana on Thursday, June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned of Gulf spill crude at The Fort Jackson Wildlife Care Center in Buras, LA. Image credit: IBRRC/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)