Enzymes and 140 million barrels of oil …

First – this is not a janitorial post – I rarely editrialize, but this was too tempting.


It looks like the BP oil spill will be yesterdays news in about 8 hours.

Or maybe already ?

A few irreverent observations before it passes into what passes for history.

1) I grew up as a ‘conservationist’ – a precursor to environmentalists. A conservationist is a rural resident who believes in things like crop rotation (soybeans and alfalfa – we grew both – put nitrogen back into the soil with no help from Monsanto – which produces more corn in subsequent years), contour plowing, terracing etc.

2) My brother used to design refineries for Exxon.

3) A roommate, a best friend from high school, and a best friend from grad school all have run or designed nuclear power plants.

4) I’ve been doing urban conservationist things (my home heating bill is about $100 per month on a pretty big house up here in the arctic in January) since Popular Science showed us how to fight back to the first Arab attacks on my country in the ’70’s.

So I’m reasonably “in context” on a lot of environmental issues.

That said – the BP spill is at best, a tempest in a teapot.

Why ?

Well, how much oil is 140,000,000 million gallons, really ? (that’s the best guess at the total volume put into the gulf per Google at noon today)

Q: Well how many gallons are there in an Olympic sized swimming pool ?

A: 650,000 – per Google a couple of weeks ago.

Q: How many Olympic sized swimming pools is that ?

A: For those of you with no calculator option on your (pre 1978) computer, about 200.

Q: How many Olympic sized swimming pools big is the gulf, now that we have created a new unit of measure ?

A: A lot.

Q: Stop toying with me !!

A: A square mile would contain about 90 * 30 Olympic swimming pools – 2700 in total.

Q: So the gulf spill is about 1 tenth of 1 square mile ?

A: Kind of.

Q: Que ?

A: Well the spill is in 5000 feet of water – 200 + Olympic swimming pools deep – so if it were contained in a column (which it is not) it would be about 1 Olympic swimming pool wide – top to bottom – which, again, it is not.

Q: When will you get to the enzyme part ?

A: Later.

Q: So …….

A: So, the Gulf is maybe 600 miles by 1000 miles in area – 600,000 square miles – and some very large number of cubic miles. The ‘swimming pools’ version of the oil spill – 7 feet deep (.001+ miles deep) by .1 miles square is a volume too small to calculate – at least in the context of the Gulf. You will need a calculator with a very large number of decimal places to do the ratio calculation after that.

Q: And ………..

A: Thank you for asking. The light crude coming out (good television that it is) was described by an oil geologist at Columbia University on NPR as having the viscosity of prune juice ( as opposed to Alberta and Venezuela oil which comes out at the viscosity of tapioca).

Q: Why is this relevant ?

A: Because before the enzymes can do their magic the oil is exposed to 90 degree heat in the Gulf – what happens to gasoline if you put a glass full of it out in 90 degree heat ?

Q: I’ll bite ………

A: Try it sometime – there will be nothing left if you put a pan of gas out in your driveway in the tropics after about 48 hours. It’ll be in the air – a different environmental problem, but it won’t mess up your beaches.

Q: But oil is not all gasoline is it ?

A: On average – 55 % – but this is light crude – so maybe 60 % or 70 %.

Q: OK – so we have a percentage of the Gulf too small to be measured – 60 % of it will evaporate, and ….. the rest ………..

A: Hopefully the enzymes will eat it (the Christian Science Monitor has a great article on this today, which triggered this post) –

Remember – the Gulf has 7000 wells already, and lots of space full of oil still to be drilled – and the ground around the wells (remember the Beverly Hillbillies?) has been leaking oil into the Gulf for millions of year – and enzymes have been happily metabolizing the heavier components. The Gulf is an ideal environment for enzyme bacteria – hot and moist.

Q: Finally –

A: Tar balls – if the enzymes can’t eat it up in time it turns into the famous tarballs and floats around till it hits a beach. But how much of this has happened yet ? And as the days go by and the enzymes have time to do their work – the problem will continue to diminish.

Cool huh ?

Oh – and

Q: Why was the Exxon Valdez such a big deal ?

Option A – Exxon is evil incarnate ?

Option B – Enzymes need heat to work – the Alaskan fiords have no warm water.

I leave that one to you.

Oh and

Q: postscript # 2 – how much oil is 140 million gallons ?

A: We in the US use 22 million barrels per day – 880,000,000 gallons or so – 140,000,000 gallons is about 4 hours supply.


8/3/10 – Update.
NPR was talking about the impact on the “dead zone” where the Mississippi River dumps fertilizer runoff into the gulf and drives out or kills ALL aquatic life except the algae and bacteria that like fertilizer.
It’s a record this year because of high levels of runoff in the midwest / torrential rains after the fields were fertilized.
It is the size of Massachusetts – it stretches all the way to Galveston Bay.
Massachusetts is 10,500 square miles.
In swimming pools – that’s really a lot, to use my unit of measure above.
A mile is about 1500 meters by 1500 meters.
An olympic swimming pool is 15 meters by 50 meters – something like 3000 or so to a square mile.
Times 10,000 square miles is 30,000,000 swimming pools – except that the dead zone goes all the way to the bottom – at which point the math becomes absurd –
Why ?
And pork – corn is raised primarily as animal fodder – tho now a lot of it goes (temporarily) into ethanol production as well, and some goes to sweeten Coca Cola, et al.
And liberal fertilizer application maximizes the per acre production of corn (as well as the per swimming pool growth of algae.)
Hence, if you care about the gulf, stop ranting about BP and become a vegetarian.
Sorry guys – but at the end the BP publicity is yet another issue of the urgent preempting the important.
Supposedly, by the way, our Minnesota River is the largest single point source of the runoff hitting the gulf – haven’t seen data on this for a few years – but I’m sure it’s still in the top 3.
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