Gulf Oil Spill: Is There a Cure?

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 to protect the Gulf’s globally significant natural systems. Read all his posts, and see fresh images from the oil spill like the one above in this slideshow from photographer Bridget Besaw.

Everybody’s got a favorite solution to the oil spill that’s spreading through the Gulf of Mexico.

We can certainly hope that one of them might prove useful.

But because we understand so little about oil, and yet are so eager for solutions, we’re easy targets for snake-oil salesmen.

Consider the microbe cure.

You’ve seen folks on TV and the Internet hawking oil-eating microbes like they were the latest, greatest thing in fighting oil spills.

But before you bet the clean-up on canned bacteria, you should know that the Gulf of Mexico already houses and feeds what must certainly be one of the world’s largest and most diverse populations of oil-eating microbes.

There are oil-eating microbes in the marshes, oil-eating microbes in the water column, oil-eating microbes hovering around natural hydrocarbon vents in the deepest sections of the Gulf.

They’re all different, and they all have their dining preferences, but they’re all the same in the most important way: They greedily feed on the carbon compounds common in plant and petroleum oils.

The good news is, they’re already at work. In a way, this spill will be a rare feast. They’re working as fast as any oil-eating microbes in the world can work to break down and contain this spill.

But here’s the bad news: No matter how many oil-eating microbes you empty into the Gulf of Mexico, their appetites are going to be limited by how much oxygen, nitrogen and other nutrients they can find to aid in their digestion.

It’s likely, for example, that the Gulf is already beginning to suffer because these oil-eating microbes are siphoning off much of the limited oxygen in the water column. That’s one of the sad ironies of this disaster. Many creatures in the Gulf will die not because of the direct toxicity of oil, but because the oil-eating microbes are now in overdrive, sucking up all the oxygen and nitrogen they can find.

In the process of cleaning up the oil, those microbes are likely to create oxygen-deprived dead zones in the Gulf. Those dead zones will not only kill off the fish, they’ll cause the populations of oil-eating bacteria to crash, further slowing the recovery.

The same problem exists on shore. Because there are so many plant oils in marshes, marsh soils are rich in oil-eating bacteria — bacteria that would be just as happy consuming petroleum oils. Unfortunately, many of these bacteria will be suffocated under the thick gooey masses of petroleum that roll ashore. And the bacteria that survive will quickly run out of the nitrogen and other nutrients they need to digest the carbon-rich petroleum oil.

Couldn’t we simply fertilize the oceans to help our native oil-eating microbes get their fill? Not really. Adding nitrogen only magnifies the problem of oxygen loss, and creates a few other problems besides. And mixing sufficient oxygen into the Gulf would require something on the scale of a monumental hurricane.

Finding creatures that can digest oil is easy. Finding creatures that can digest massive, unnaturally large quantities of oil without wrecking the ecosystem in the process may be impossible.

I was recently cornered by an aspiring bioengineer, a sincere scientist, a nice guy. He wanted me to know that he was working hard to develop oil-eating bugs that were “better” than the bugs we already had. I tried not to worry too much — if such a thing were possible, I figured he was at least a few thousand test-tube generations away from creating it.

But let’s suppose he was somehow able to create a bug entirely new, without the normal limitations of the oil-eating bacteria in the Gulf, a superbug that could survive anywhere, chewing through oil regardless of whether there’s enough oxygen, nitrogen and other nutrients to go around.

What happens when these bugs get finished chewing through the petroleum oil in the Gulf of Mexico? If I were such a superbug, I’d start chewing on the marsh soils, with their rich and healthy accumulation of plant carbons and oils, the very oils that gave rise to petroleum in the first place.

And because I was a superbug, and didn’t need as much oxygen and nitrogen as other microbes, I’d eat deeper, eat faster into the marsh than all the plain old bacteria that have been around long enough to know it’s not wise to eat yourself out of house and home.

Here’s the terrible thought we’re all going to have to get used to: There’s no way to simply make this oil disappear.

We can and should stop the flow as quickly as possible, corral it where possible, skim it off the surface as quick as we can. But hundreds of millions of gallons of oil are already so well stirred into the Gulf’s systems and processes, there’s no way to call it back.

It won’t be BP or the Coast Guard or scientists in a laboratory cleaning up the Gulf. The clean-up will be done by the Gulf itself, slowly, violently and at great cost to all the creatures living there.

Our task — the most important human task — will be making sure that there are enough of these creatures and natural systems left to support a full recovery of the Gulf as soon as possible.

(Image: The hand of NOAA’s Tim Olsen and a sample container after he collected water samples near Grand Terre Island, Louisiana. Image credit: Bridget Besaw.)

Want to help? Explore three ways you can help Gulf restoration — sharing our stories from the Gulf, making a donation to long-term restoration efforts, or volunteering to help clean-up and restoration.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Bill,
    Thanks for this. I completely agree with your assessment, and believe that the Earth is equipped to take care of this spill better than we are. Oil is of the Earth and nature has a way of cycling everything through.
    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the unprecedented use of dispersants however, and the way that dispersants significantly alter the ecosystem, rendering Earth’s own processes nearly ineffective. I agree that skimming and removing oil, where possible, is the best solution. But allowing nature to process the rest is exacerbated by the millions of gallons of Corexit, further “toxifying” the water.
    This is not to mention all the oil and dispersant mixed we cannot get to once it is hidden deep within these giant plumes under the water, where it poisons life throughout the water column. What happens when the natural bugs consume this toxic soup, then get consumed on up the food chain?

  2. Bill, you always manage to cut through to the chase. I appreciate your level headed analysis, and look forward to all of your articles. Thanks, Ellen

  3. Mistake #1 is the statement that oil is fossil fuel. Oil is abiotically generated at the deepest of earth’s furnace- not compacted sediment over millions of years.

    Strange how these fake environmental groups are so militant on carbon tax with fake greenhouse issue- but fade into the ether on this most pressing and catastrophic of crisis. Any guess why?

    The Nature Conservancy, described as “the world’s most powerful environmental group,” has awarded BP a seat on its International Leadership Council after the oil company gave the organization more than $10 million in recent years.

    Until recently, the Conservancy and other environmental groups worked with BP in a coalition that lobbied Congress on climate-change issues. An employee of BP Exploration serves as an unpaid Conservancy trustee in Alaska. In addition, according to a recent report published by the Washington Post, Conservation International, another environmental group, has accepted $2 million in donations from BP and worked with the company on a number of projects, including one examining oil-extraction methods. From 2000 to 2006, John Browne, then BP’s chief executive, sat on the CI board.

  4. Further, The Environmental Defense Fund, another influential ecologist organization, joined with BP, Shell and other major corporations to form a Partnership for Climate Action, to promote ‘market-based mechanisms’ (sic) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    Environmental non-profit groups that have accepted donations from or joined in projects with BP include Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club and Audubon. That could explain why the political outcry to date for decisive action in the Gulf has been so muted.

  5. Thank you for enlightening us. We appreciate your concise article and direction. Thanks again.

  6. Have you seen this 2004 EPA study? Most of it is over my head, but from what I can gather bio remediation appears to be a viable tool (not silver bullet) to mitigating this catastrophe. I realize nothing is going to fix this, but there are companies that have been growing and selling these microbes for two decades with great success. Also, the study is based on only a few tests. Shouldn’t we do as much testing as possible?

  7. Finally, the truth about what is in store for the Gulf.

  8. What’s driving me crazy is that this information and more that the Nature Conservancy and others has is not “out there” or at least not that I can see. I think I am suffering from a huge amount of frustration that the magnitude of this is not being realized. I remember when I was a kid and the super oil carriers were causing oil spills almost every week culminating with the Exxon Valdez and I felt that frustration then. However, this is so much worse. Is it possible that we can get this information more if front of the public eye. I haven’t checked facebook yet, but I hope this information is getting out there.

  9. Two other interesting clean-up technologies:

    1. Matter of Trust hair and fiber booms: See

    2. Di Gao, an assistant professor and William Kepler Whiteford Faculty Fellow in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, has developed a technique for separating oil from water via a cotton filter coated in a chemical polymer that blocks oil while allowing water to pass through. See

    Interesting. Maybe, if we work through this national environmental disaster, we will have developed some technologies to clean all of our waterways…

    Jenni Veal
    Chattanooga, Tenn.

  10. I agree that Nature will do a good job at cleaning herself up, and man made ‘cures’ only add to the problem, but the most important thing we can do is LEARN from this tragedy. If we could go ONE day, as a nation, without supporting the petroleum industry, we might be on the path to eliminating our insatiable hunger for oil! Conserve, conserve, conserve!

  11. For those interested in gulf restoration, check out and join the Women of the Storm by signing an online petition for full funding of coastal restoration. Thanks and please share it with your circle!

  12. Why not take the energy from flaring of natural gas coming out of the spill to power big blowers that will bubble air into the water column to (re-)oxygenate it, thereby aiding in the bacterial consumption of the oil? It would seem that if we can’t boom and skim it, we should churn it as much as possible- oxygenate the water column to aid in breaking it down.

    As for nitrogen, aren’t there excess nitrates coming out of the Mississippi from fertilizer runoff and CAFOs?

    It would be a good undergraduate or graduate env’l engineering project to see what the N and O balance would be needed to deal microbially with the oil spill.

  13. Wow

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