ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Take It With a Grain of (Sea) Salt: Gulf Microbe Study Was Funded by BP

.

Getty Images

Earlier this week, major news outlets ran with headlines about how a new microbe has been found eating up BP’s oil, and how microbes have degraded the hydrocarbons so efficiently that the vast plumes of oil in the Gulf are now undetectable. No joke.

A bit skeptical of all the oil-is-mostly-gone claims, the day that microbe study was released we chose instead to focus on the Gulf’s thousands of dead fish. Lucky for us.

MIT’s Science Tracker, in a post published yesterday, noted that the microbe study was conducted by U.C. Berkeley scientists through a grant with the Energy Biosciences Institute, and that the Energy Biosciences Institute is funded by none other than BP, through a $500 million, 10-year grant. (To the researchers' credit, they also mentioned the funding in their press release — you just had to read about three-quarters of the way through.)

That relationship shouldn't have been a total surprise. In July, news reports had noted the U.C. Berkeley-BP connection. Activists had protested the $500 million in funding, worried that the funding source would influence the science. The response from U.C. Berkeley? From the Associated Press, emphasis added:

But UC Berkeley officials say the institute has nothing to do with the Gulf spill, and the university has no plans to end its research partnership with BP.

That was late July — less than a month before Berkeley Lab scientist Terry Hazen announced that his team’s research found that the deep water plumes “went away fairly rapidly after the well was capped.”

While having BP as a funding source doesn’t invalidate the research, in the very least it’s probably at least worth mentioning in the same breath.

Separately, a scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which produced plume findings two weeks ago, made the point that sometimes both scientists and reporters overreach when describing research — scientists to have their work recognized, and reporters to make a story sound more impressive, or in the case of the Gulf, to fit a more exciting narrative that pits scientists against each other.

“The research added new information to an unfolding investigation, but the media seemed more interested in whether our work decided whether NOAA or the Georgia group was right,” Christopher Reddy, a Woods Hole scientist, wrote on CNN regarding his experience sharing research with the press.

For the record, here’s what we wrote about the Woods Hole study:

And then I know we pointed this out on Wednesday, but independent scientists kept piling on the research this week about their own spill findings — some outright contradicted the government’s report; others added to what we know about the oil’s movement and location.

The latest, released Thursday, seems to fall into the latter category. Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution measured a plume of dispersed oil that’s “at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf,” they announced. The Wall Street Journal noted that’s the size of Manhattan.

Readers can judge where we stand in this debate.

Craig Pittman

Aug. 26, 2010, 2:33 p.m.

Actually the point EVERYBODY has missed is that the Berkeley Lab study showing microbes were gobbling up the plume was based on samples gathered from the gulf from May 25 to June 2, while the Woods Hole study showing there was STILL a 22-mile long plume was based on samples taken from the gulf from June 19-28—AFTER the Berkeley one.

A plume 22 miles long?  So how did scientists miss this - did it float off somewhere?  Is BP gonna add more chemicals?  Can they use machines to ‘suck it up’?

Craig Pittman

Aug. 26, 2010, 3:51 p.m.

Here’s the link to the Woods Hole study, which documented the 22-mile long plume southwest of Deepwater Horizon AFTER the Berkeley Lab study: http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=7545&tid=282&ct=162&cid=79926  and here’s a story about a different plume, this one about 45 miles long and north-northeast of the Deepwater Horizon rig: http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/college/usf-scientists-find-oil-spill-damage-to-critical-marine-life/1115706

Franklin Mirer

Aug. 26, 2010, 4:06 p.m.

I’m supposed to know the answer to this but don’t. Oil is lighter than water. How come it doesn’t float to the top? The only answer I can think of is that the oil coming out of the gulf floor is cold.

Craig Pittman

Aug. 26, 2010, 4:08 p.m.

The chemical dispersants that BP sprayed directly at the gushing oil from the wellhead a mile deep in the water, that’s why. The dispersants spread the oil droplets out and kept them from joining together in a slick on the surface. Instead they formed plumes that are invisible to the human eye, although detectable via chemical fingerprinting.

Patrick Kapty

Aug. 26, 2010, 5:56 p.m.

and don’t forget to mention that those ‘dispersants’ are illegal in Britain, the home of British Petroleum, and have been shown to have substantial toxicity, and in this instance were deployed in quantities never used before. Wonder if the Berkeley BP Institute will be studying the effects of this massive quantity of dispersants in conjunction with a huge quantity of oil?

and they’ve had a supply of those dispersants for how long?  I think I read they had to store some for awhile because of the ban in Britain.

BP really, really cares about cleaning up. Its image that is.

So what happens to the microbes when the oil is finally “gobbled up”?  I’m thinking that they die, what kind of Red Tide will this be?

Just a note on the dispersment used in the Gulf oil spill:  I live at a condo in Fort Walton Beach Florida.  We are using a product call AllGuard to coat our building.  A key ingredient in this Dow Chemical product is the same ingredient used in the disperment used in the Gulf.  Currently, we are unable to obtain AllGuard, as is every one using this product or any product like AllGuard because every bit of the chemical was poured into the Gulf.  What I’m saying is that the use of the dispersement in the Gulf has shut down painting projects all over the U.S. We are now on a waiting list to try and get the AllGuard product and don’t know when we will be able to finish painting our building.  That gives you some idea of how much of this chemical was poured into the Gulf.  Unbelievable.  The only reason for using the dispersement was to create the illusion that the oil spill is not so bad.  Just like this study…..just smoke and mirrors.

A pity to see Propublica pushing this kind of rubbishy ad hominem argument.  Let’s see - study A is funded by a shady outfit with an agenda called BP.  Study B is funded by another shady outfit with an agenda called the US government.  Which leaves us where?

Michael Cowperthwaite

Aug. 27, 2010, 12:57 p.m.

The first place I saw the story about the Woods Hole study was on Popular Science’s website (pointed there by Google News), and the BP funding was prominently mentioned there. The San Francisco Chronicle’s own story on the study also mentioned the funding.

Marian, Terry Hazen’s work is available why not look at it? How come no dispersant has shown up in any of the tests being done all over the gulf?

Bobo McFadden

Aug. 28, 2010, 8:14 p.m.

INDEPENDENT TOXICITY TESTS NOW.

James R. Bailey

Aug. 29, 2010, 8:24 p.m.

Yes, some oil products are less dense than water. Therefore they float. However, the stuff that pours out of a breached well is an amalgam of everything from ether to asphalt. Extremely thin substances evaporate or are dissolved in water. Tar is so thick that it won’t float. It settles to the bottom. Hundreds of petroleum substances fall somewhere in the middle. Industry executives, being thick-headed, should sink to the bottom.

What most newspapers don’t report is the concentration of oil in the “plume”.  The WSJ was one of the few that reported the concentration as 50 micrograms of oil per liter of seawater. A microgram is 1/1000 of a miligram.  And a miligram is 1/1000 of a gram.  And a liter of water contains about 1000 grams.  So the concentration of oil in the plume was 50 parts per billion!  Now take an 8 oz glass of oil, and place it in a billion oz of water.  How much water will that be?  Now follow me.  A pint holds 16 oz.[2 glasses].  A quart holds two pints [4 glasses].  A gallon holds four quarts [16 glasses].  A rail road tank car holds about 30, 000 gallons [16 X 30,000=480,000 glasses].  A loooooong train of 1000 tank cars would hold 1000x480,000=480,000,000 glasses. Since this large number is about one half of a billion.  Two of these long trains would contain a billion glasses.  So take 50 glasses of oil and place it in two long trains containing 1,000 tank cars each, each tank car of which would hold 30,000 gallons.

Elizabeth Murray

Aug. 31, 2010, 7:44 p.m.

This is an embarrassing “investigation.”  No mention that the Journal Science is the nation’s most prestigious, or that this work was peer reviewed independently and anonymously.

Dispersant will probably turn out to be one of the better decisions in the Gulf.  It is early to see what will happen to the whole ecosystem, but 50 ppb at 3500 feet below sea level is not the most vulnerable area in the ocean.

Why are you people harrassing BP. The people are giving you $20 Billion and you think that they do not care?
BP is paying $20 Billion because BP CARES. Let’s agree to disagree that BP CARES because they really care.  Forget about the crazy T-shirt bull… BP should have their own BP CARES campaign. They should know better..

A business will always protect itself.  If a CEO would indefensibly expose his company to a huge financial loss, he would be facing a huge personal financial loss in the form of lawsuits from shareholders.

We don’t know if BP cares about the environment or not.  We do know they care about their bottom line.  $20 billion now might mean saving BP from bankruptcy later.  Remember when a certain prime minister spoke with Obama

A business will always protect itself.  If a CEO would indefensibly expose his company to a huge financial loss, he would be facing a huge personal financial loss in the form of lawsuits from shareholders.

We don’t know if BP cares about the environment or not.  We do know they care about their bottom line.  $20 billion now might mean saving BP from bankruptcy later.  Remember when a certain prime minister spoke with Obama in a move to assure British retirees that their savings were safe.  At this point, it’s just business. 

The problem is the gov’t

We don’t know if BP cares about the environment.  We do know that BP cares about their bottom line.  If any CEO indefensibly exposed his company to serious financial loss, that CEO would face a serious financial loss himself in the form of shareholder lawsuits to say the least.

Remember when David Cameron reportedly spoke to Obama in a move to assure Brit retirees that their life savings were safe?  BP has it’s good…Here’s the ugly:  This is just business as usual.  BP is just trying to stay in business and make/save money. Nothing more, nothing less.  Cue chemical dispersants, sand trucks to cover tar covered beaches, and a huge array of security (land, sea, & air) to block the media from seeing the truth.

BP cares about it’s bottom line, if the environment gets saved, great, but it’s not their priority. 
The good:  BP is owned by a large amount of British retirees.  Remember when David Cameron spoke with Obama to assure those retirees that their savings was safe?
The Bad: When this first broke, the scale of the disaster was large enough for people to believe it could mean the end of BP.  $20 Billion, they could make in a fiscal quarter.
The Ugly: This is business as usual.  This is what really happens when big companies make expensive mistakes.  Remember, these are the same people that orchestrated the blocking of access to contracted fishermen, barring the media from even seeing the clean up site (by land, sea, and air), dumping sand over tarred beaches, releasing chemical dispersants that we don’t know everything about especially when released in quantities unheard of before now. And with the Obama Administration making “misstatements” about whether or not a study has been peer reviewed suggests a PR campaign that reaches all the way to the top.

BP cares about it’s bottom line, if the environment gets saved, great, but it’s not their priority. 
The good:  BP is owned by a large amount of British retirees.  Remember when David Cameron spoke with Obama to assure those retirees that their savings was safe?
The Bad: When this first broke, the scale of the disaster was large enough for people to believe it could mean the end of BP.  $20 Billion, they could make in a fiscal quarter.
The Ugly: This is business as usual.  This is what really happens when big companies make expensive mistakes.  Remember, these are the same people that orchestrated the blocking of access to contracted fishermen, barring the media from even seeing the clean up site (by land, sea, and air), dumping sand over tarred beaches, releasing chemical dispersants that we don’t know everything about especially when released in quantities unheard of before now. And with the Obama Administration making “misstatements” about whether or not a study has been peer reviewed suggests a PR campaign that reaches all the way to the top.  And now this.

BP cares about it’s bottom line, if the environment gets saved, great, but it’s not their priority. 
The good:  BP is owned by a large amount of British retirees.  Remember when David Cameron spoke with Obama to assure those retirees that their savings was safe? When this first broke, the scale of the disaster was large enough for people to believe it could mean the end of BP.  $20 Billion, they could make in a fiscal quarter.
The Ugly: This is business as usual.  This is what really happens when big companies make expensive mistakes.  Remember, these are the same people that orchestrated the blocking of access to contracted fishermen, barring the media from even seeing the clean up site (by land, sea, and air), dumping sand over tarred beaches, releasing chemical dispersants that we don’t know everything about especially when released in quantities unheard of before now. And with the Obama Administration making “misstatements” about whether or not a study has been peer reviewed suggests a PR campaign that reaches all the way to the top.

BP cares about it’s bottom line, if the environment gets saved, great, but it’s not their priority. 
The good:  BP is owned by a large amount of British retirees.  Remember when David Cameron spoke with Obama to assure those retirees that their savings was safe? When this first broke, the scale of the disaster was large enough for people to believe it could mean the end of BP.  $20 Billion, they could make in a fiscal quarter.

BP cares about it’s bottom line, if the environment gets saved, great, but it’s not their priority.  The good:  BP is owned by a large amount of British retirees.  Remember when David Cameron spoke with Obama to assure those retirees that their savings was safe? When this first broke, the scale of the disaster was large enough for people to believe it could mean the end of BP.  $20 Billion, they could make in a fiscal quarter.

BP cares about it’s bottom line, if the environment gets saved, great, but it’s not their priority. 
BP is owned by a large amount of British retirees.  Remember when David Cameron spoke with Obama to assure those retirees that their savings was safe? When this first broke, the scale of the disaster was large enough for people to believe it could mean the end of BP.  $20 Billion, they could make in a fiscal quarter. This is business as usual.  This is what really happens when big companies make expensive mistakes.  Remember, these are the same people that orchestrated the blocking of access to contracted fishermen, barring the media from even seeing the clean up site (by land, sea, and air), dumping sand over tarred beaches, releasing chemical dispersants that we don’t know everything about especially when released in quantities unheard of before now. And with the Obama Administration making “misstatements” about whether or not a study has been peer reviewed suggests a PR campaign that reaches all the way to the top.

The Coastguard already admitted in Aug that they were still spraying Dispersant underwater at the wellhead. http://www.thedestinlog.com/news/residents-14872-multiple-differ.html  I would want to know if this is still true and if the well head is no longer leaking, why?

Unfortunately, some earlier comments and elaborate calculations notwithstanding, fish don’t recline in beach chairs and drink water one glass at a time, and we don’t deliver the ocean to them in railroad tanker cars.

A small (15-inch) Yellowfin Tuna can easily swim 2 miles in an hour. During this time, about 86 gallons of water will pass directly over its gill surfaces. At the average oil concentrations reported within these plumes, at least 16 milligrams of oil microdroplets would come in contact with the tuna’s gill surfaces for each hour it spends swimming within a plume. This is what an earlier poster fails to acknowledge: while concentrations of hydrocarbons (and dispersants) in a plume are low, aquatic life doesn’t float stationary within their own “cubes” of water.

Tuna are ram ventilators - they must swim continuously in order to force oxygenating water over their gills - so during a typical night’s feeding, a small tuna might travel 10 miles or more. If it is unfortunate enough to spend even half that time within an oil plume, it will have exposed its gill surfaces to 40 milligrams of oil/dispersant microdroplets per day of exposure. These droplets would quickly coat and clog delicate gill membranes, reducing oxygenation capacity and stimulating the growth of inflammatory lesions. The aquatic equivalent of an aerosol, the microdroplets are also the perfect delivery mechanism for toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbon transfer into the bloodstream.

Any serious and unbiased evaluation of this phenomenon must acknowledge its significance, in spite of a plethora of attempts to minimize it.

Commenting is not available in this section entry.
This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
.

Gulf Oil Spill

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf has had untold health, economic and environmental effects.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •