A Basler BT-67 fixed wing aircraft releases oil dispersant over oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on 5 May 2010.
In response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest marine oil spill ever in the United States, airplanes such as this fixed-wing Basler BT-67 released dispersants on the contaminated water’s surface. Credit: David Neff/Contributor/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Oil spills in temperate waters like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are bad enough. But spills in the Arctic would be even worse, according to a well-known oil hazards researcher who spoke this winter at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. What’s more, the risk posed by tankers in the cold, vulnerable north is about to intensify from an expected surge in Russian oil shipments through the Bering Strait starting this summer, said Nancy Kinner.

Nancy Kinner, Ph.D. Credit: University of New Hampshire

Strategic partnerships between academia and the federal government are beneficial when spills occur. Kinner codirects one such partnership, the Coastal Response Research Center, a collaboration between the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Kinner, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UNH in Durham, gave a talk at the meeting about the use of chemicals to disperse oil released by the Deepwater Horizon rig and other challenges of responding to oil spills. When that industrial disaster gushed out millions of gallons of crude oil and gases into waters of the Gulf of Mexico, responders used a controversial chemical dispersant, applied to the ocean surface and beneath the surface at the oil well, to assist the cleanup process.

Dispersants help break up the oil into smaller clumps, which are easier for ocean bacteria to digest, but they pose their own dangers. Until the Deepwater Horizon incident, the largest U.S. marine oil spill, dispersants were used on only a few spills on a much smaller scale. Now new research on dispersant droplets finds just how small they can get, revealing another danger for spill responders.

“Each spill is unique, and every day of that spill is unique.”

After her talk, Kinner, set aside her signature red hat and sat down with Eos for a wide-ranging interview. (Her responses below have been edited for length and clarity.) She discussed with us the current level of oil spill risk—from Russian activities and otherwise, the response options that companies and governments have when spills occur, some new and major findings about the size and danger of dispersant droplets, and her thoughts about oil spills and the future.

There are no cookie-cutter solutions for the problems of preventing and combating oil spills, Kinner said. Instead, she emphasized, “each spill is unique, and every day of that spill is unique.”

Eos: What is our current risk for marine oil spills? Has that changed from the past, and will it change in the future?

NK: I would say that our risk of oil spills has gone down to a point. With respect to ocean spills, tanker spills are way down. In a way, we have improved a lot of abilities with respect to drilling in the sea. However, there are some new risks that are emerging.

The Russian petroleum industry, which is owned by the Russian government, is talking about sending tankers of either LNG [liquid natural gas] or oil every 45 hours through the Bering Strait, starting this July. Those are waters that are poorly explored from a navigation standpoint. There are a lot of bad storms, the navigation aids are few and far between, the support infrastructure is so poor out there both on the Russian Far East side and even on the U.S. side. We just don’t have the infrastructure. I think that’s an increased threat.

Then, of course, we have the increased pressure to go further offshore in the Gulf [of Mexico] to get oil. As the price of oil goes up, the attractiveness of that goes up. Though I think we have learned a lot about Deepwater Horizon, we still have very aging infrastructure in the Gulf. The amount of pipeline that’s down there is huge. When you have hurricanes, you shut an area, and when you open it up, there can be leaks. It’s just old infrastructure.

I’m a little less worried about the current stands by our federal government to expand offshore drilling in areas where it has not been expanded or where it has not been occurring because that takes a very long time to come to reality. We seem not to be weaning ourselves off petroleum, so in the long term that’s concerning.

Eos: What are our current options for responding to an oil spill?

“Dispersants are not used until you’re at least 3 nautical miles offshore, in water that is at least 10 meters, or 33 feet, deep.”

NK: For offshore spills, dispersants are an option. I think people get that confused. Dispersants are not used until you’re at least 3 nautical miles offshore, in water that is at least 10 meters, or 33 feet, deep. The number of times we’ve used dispersants in this country is very small.

It’s really an option for only a very select, small group of spills. You’re not going to be doing dispersant application where there are a lot of people. You’re not going to be doing dispersant applications subsea where you have very, very shallow water because there is no point in it.

Most of the in situ burns are offshore. You have to have a capability of herding the oil into a relatively thick layer, and it has to have enough material that will burn. It has to be a certain type of oil, or it has to be a certain condition where you can corral the oil. You can’t do that with big waves. If it’s highly weathered oil, you are not going to be burning it. There again, we have very limited uses of this technology.

The traditional technology is skimming, and it’s the preferred technology. The equipment can be deployed and towed through actionable oil. Everybody wants to get the oil out of the water, if at all possible. Unfortunately, you usually don’t get more than 10%, and that’s a lot. The spill is constantly spreading.

The other thing is that we don’t have equipment just sitting everywhere waiting for a very low probability event. One of the things that’s being talked about is to have a skimmer that ships could actually carry with them. Say, if there was a spill, it could be deployed. That might work.

Boats skim oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in May 2010.
The traditional oil cleanup technique of skimming, in which boats tow booms to corral and capture oil at the sea surface, typically collects as much as 10% of the released oil. Credit: Biloxi Sun Herald/Contributor/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

But again, when a ship has had an accident like that, people are not thinking about cleaning up the oil. They are focused on human safety. Often times, the deployment of these devices is after we’ve gotten that very immediate health and safety taken care of.

Eos: One of the things that impressed me in your talk is how much data and information are coming in to the responders after a spill.

NK: Oh my God, and it’s getting worse. I mean it’s getting better, but it’s getting worse. Imagine having to synthesize all of that information that’s coming in. Now you’ve got gobs of data coming in from just drones and other things flying over. Those data have to be digested.

Not only do we have gobs of data coming across the Internet, but sometimes, like in Alaska, there aren’t places you could send it, because there’s no hookup. There are many places where you don’t have a hookup during natural disasters.

Storing photographs takes up huge amounts of space. All of this is really challenging, and then all of it has to be digested and translated into something meaningful. People make decisions on meaningful data.

Eos: What is the timescale for making those decisions?

NK: Making those decisions is quick. When we talk about models for oil spills, this is always an issue. You need a trajectory model. You need to know now what that trajectory is predicting for 24 hours from now. The model can’t take a long time to run. So that’s big.

Eos: Another interesting finding came from the earlier talk by Joseph Katz of Johns Hopkins University. His chamber experiments illustrate the resulting size of oil droplets after encountering a dispersant. You mentioned their size during your talk. Was it surprising to learn the smallest droplets are much smaller than expected, even at the nanoparticle scale?

NK: It was a huge surprise. He took the first photographs of what happens when an oil droplet encounters a dispersant. He tracked 10,000 droplets. It blew your mind.

I remember going to a meeting and showing that data and saying “Hey, what these health people at Johns Hopkins are saying is that our PPE [personal protection equipment] does not protect our workers.” They were horrified. I don’t think people could believe that. Those tiny droplets stay in the air for a long time. There are workers inhaling them into their lungs. Everybody is pretty much accepting it now, but the PPE issue is big. Of course, again, we don’t use dispersants on very many spills.

Eos: If the Deepwater Horizon scenario were to happen in another part of the world, like the Arctic, what are we dealing with then?

“If we had a well blowout in the Arctic, it would be way worse.”

NK: If we had a well blowout in the Arctic, it would be way worse. In that, it’s dark, it’s cold. We don’t have resources.

Now we in the U.S. are not right now developing drilling in the Arctic, but as I mentioned the Russians are. And it’s going to happen.

We just did a workshop with the Arctic Domain Awareness Center with the University of Alaska. We were imagining what would happen with an oil spill up there, but in this case we were looking at a ship. All of the worst-case things you can imagine, they are there. Oil gets trapped under the ice—is that a good thing? It could be a good thing. It’s kind of trapped, but how do you know where it is? What do you do about it?

The Arctic ecosystem is so fragile. It’s under such stress out there just from climate change that putting another insult on like that is really a problem.

Eos: Do you see a day where we don’t have to worry about oil spills, or is that never going to happen?

NK: Not in my lifetime. I think that there will be a lesser and lesser emphasis on using petroleum products. Do I think that they will ever be totally not used? I don’t know. I don’t see us moving away from ships to move materials. To run a ship on battery, solar, or wind, it’s not an easy thing to do.  I think there probably will come a day, but I probably will not be around to see it.

—Laura G. Shields (email: lgshields@gmail.com; @LauraGShields), Science Communication Program Graduate Student, University of California, Santa Cruz


Shields, L. G. (2018), Oil spill response knowledge grows, but new risks emerge, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO096031. Published on 03 April 2018.

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