Dispensing Misconceptions on BP's Oil Dispersant

| by John Rafuse

With oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon accident all but gone from the Gulf of Mexico’s waters, there has been much ado about nothing concerning the dispersing agents that were used to successfully dissipate the spill. And while environmental activists continue to assault these agents – known in the energy industry as ‘dispersants’ – on the grounds that they are bad for the environment, workers in the Gulf continue to feel the pain of the tragedy these agents helped end.

So, what exactly are dispersants, and how did they help hasten a clean-up effort marred in bureaucratic red tape and political quarreling? When applied during a response to an oil spill, dispersants are chemical compounds that are sprayed from the air and settle onto the effected body of water, where they break apart oil slicks into tiny drops. This then allows water-borne bacteria to digest the oil; this feeding allows the bacteria to multiple rapidly and, thus, consume larger amounts of oil at a quickening pace.

The particular dispersant used by responders in the Gulf of Mexico is a compound manufactured by Illinois-based Nalco Holding Company called COREXIT 9500. This dispersing agent is made up of organic acid salts and a glycol solvent. Despite what environmental activists claim, the dispersant used in the Gulf is safe, and clearly prevented more oil from reaching the vulnerable shorelines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Had the government heeded activist calls to limit or downright ban the use of the large amount of dispersant deployed to conquer the hundreds of millions of gallons of oil from BP’s Macondo well, the Gulf’s workers and consumers would be if even worse off today.

If environmental safety was a real concern for activists, they would have been wise to consult scientific data and recently-conducted research before advocating the limitation of dispersants in the Gulf. For starters, the safety data report for COREXIT 9500 clearly states that none of the substances in the compound have been found by the International Agency for Research on Cancer to be carcinogenic. What is more, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded peer-reviewed, independent study of the toxicity of dispersants recently used in the Gulf. In a press release this month, EPA stated, “These results confirm that the dispersant used in response to the oil spill in the gulf, Corexit 9500A, when mixed with oil, is generally no more or less toxic than mixtures with the other available alternatives.” Additionally, in a report to EPA, BP stated that the COREXIT deployed was the least toxic dispersant currently available.

Future oil spill responses may also get a big lift from a new species of oil-consuming microbes. As NPR reported last week, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Terry Hazen, along with a team of researchers, has discovered a new species of oil-eating bacteria living half a mile down below the Gulf’s surface. These cold-water loving bacteria are responsible for the recent dissipation of the massive oil plume that stretched for miles underwater until earlier this week. The abundance of microorganisms in our waters, coupled with the safe use of dispersants, will make meeting the challenges of future accidents much more manageable.

With scientists and researchers in agreement that the efficacy of dispersants is substantial, policymakers now need to turn their attention to helping workers recover from the Gulf tragedy. Government’s response to date has been enacting a moratorium on offshore drilling and consideration of new taxes on America’s oil and gas producers. Neither of these policies is helpful, and neither is based on rigorous inquiry.

Hopefully, as policymakers continually weigh in on the future of America’s offshore energy industry, they will think less like politicians and more like scientists. Just like dispersants were a sure fire way to dissipate massive amounts of spilled oil, lifting the deepwater moratorium and rejecting new energy taxes will ensure that workers get back to their jobs and our economy gets back on track.