Last year it was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and then another in China in early June and just last week, Mon­tana suf­fered an oil spill, with an esti­mated 42,000 gal­lons dumping into the Yel­low­stone River. Jen­nifer Cole, director of the Envi­ron­mental Studies Pro­gram at North­eastern, dis­cusses how oil spills affect wildlife and irri­ga­tion, and empha­sizes the need to reeval­uate our depen­dence on fossil fuels.

What are the short– and long-​​term effects of an oil spill of this magnitude?

Oil is a trou­ble­some pol­lu­tant because, when released, it sep­a­rates into dif­ferent phases, some of which can be extremely harmful. For example, some oil volatilizes out into the atmos­phere where it pol­lutes the air and is toxic to living organ­isms. A por­tion, LNAPL (light non-​​aqueous phase liquid), floats on top of water and when that water is moving — as is the case in the ocean or the Yel­low­stone River in Mon­tana — an oily froth is cre­ated that coats birds’ feathers and inter­feres with ther­moreg­u­la­tion and flight. Other organ­isms living in or near the water are sim­i­larly affected, as the froth blocks sun­light from reaching the water column, effec­tively ending pho­to­syn­thesis in that area and removing both a food source and a vital source of oxygen for aquatic ani­mals such as fish. Other parts of the oil dis­solve into the water, cre­ating dis­solved petro­leum pol­lu­tion, while the heav­iest oil, DNAPL (dense non-​​aqueous phase liquid), sinks to the bottom where it coats rocks, plants and any ben­thic organisms.

Given these dif­ferent phases, cleanup is dif­fi­cult, and true reme­di­a­tion is often vir­tu­ally impossible.

How are land and crops recov­ered after an oil spill? Are there any new tech­nolo­gies that play a role?

If land is coated with oil, there are two solu­tions: Either wait until weather washes and degrades the oil, or exca­vate the soil and incin­erate the oil/​sediment mix­ture until the oil burns off.  One can imagine this would not leave viable soil, and it is also not prac­tical for vast agri­cul­tural fields.

The field of biore­me­di­a­tion uses microbes to break down oil the same way envi­ron­mental fac­tors would, albeit at a quicker pace. The area is pop­u­lated with microbes known to decom­pose crude oil, and oxygen and nitrogen are com­monly added to facil­i­tate micro­bial res­pi­ra­tion involving the breaking of carbon bonds. But this is expen­sive, time con­suming and very labor inten­sive, so it is not done often.

Given the number of recent major oil spills world­wide, should there be stricter reg­u­la­tion on oil usage and pipe place­ment? Is it time to reeval­uate our reliance on fossil fuels and explore alter­na­tive energy options?

There are strict reg­u­la­tions, but they are not always fol­lowed, and when spills occur, there is a small wrist slap and then we quickly revert to busi­ness as usual. I just put the fin­ishing touches on an honors sem­inar enti­tled “Alter­na­tive Energy: Why Aren’t We There Yet?” where stu­dents will take a devil’s advo­cate approach to inves­ti­gating alter­na­tive energy, and they will also talk about the pros of fossil fuels. I don’t believe there are such things as envi­ron­mental prob­lems, only eco­nomic prob­lems. When it becomes less expen­sive to use alter­na­tive energy, we will use alter­na­tive energy. Gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion could go a long way by taxing fossil fuel com­pa­nies (or at least removing the baf­fling sub­si­dies they are afforded) and giving incen­tives to com­pa­nies devel­oping, investing in and using alter­na­tive energy technologies.

It was time to reeval­uate our reliance on fossil fuels a long time ago, but this polit­ical and eco­nomic issue is fraught with stum­bling blocks, such as laying down new grids and infra­struc­ture, using appro­priate local energy sources, cre­ating effec­tive pricing struc­tures, and most impor­tantly, doing all this so alter­na­tive energy is cheaper than coal, oil and nat­ural gas. In my opinion, we are a long way away.