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ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: September 16, 2020

Lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon 

“What Did We Learn from the Deepwater Horizon Disaster?”
Chemical & Engineering News

This year marks a decade since the official end of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which leaked up to 5 million barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, scientists have studied the incident’s environmental and public health impacts. A new story in Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, describes some of the lessons learned from this disaster and how to address future incidents. 

The Deepwater Horizon spill continued the debate over the use of dispersants — proprietary solutions of surfactants, solvents and emulsifiers — to help oil mix into the water, allowing microbes to degrade it over time. While this approach can reduce the environmental impact of oil spills on coastal ecosystems, some scientists worry about the chemicals’ harmful effects on marine life and those working to clean up the spill, writes special correspondent Giuliana Viglione. During the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, crews for the first time injected dispersants underwater at the site of the leaking well to break up the oil pouring out. Some researchers studying the spill thought this action may have caused more harm than good, while others argue that dispersants are the best solution at hand during such a crisis.

Beyond the debate over dispersants, the Deepwater Horizon spill also provided scientists with an opportunity to learn more about how oil breaks down and spreads on the ocean’s surface. Scientists were previously limited in their investigations of these processes, but tools such as high-resolution mass spectrometry and 3D modeling have made it easier to view and track the spread of oil spills on and beneath the ocean’s surface. In addition, scientists are refining their understanding of how microorganisms can metabolize oil spilled into the ocean. However, experts caution that the lack of control data from before a spill limits their ability to study the full impact of such an incident, and that future technologies will need to be accessible to those working closest to the spill sites.

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