AP Investigation: Hurricane Ike's environmental damage apparent as pipelines, oil rigs hit

Ike's toll on wildlife is still unfolding. Only a few pelicans and osprey turned up oiled, but the storm upended nature. Winds blew more than 1,000 baby squirrels from their nests. The storm's surge pushed saltwater into freshwater marshes and bayous, killing grasses where cattle graze and displacing alligators. Flooding also stranded cows. [Emphasis mine.]

Uh, 1,000 baby squirrels? Well, Mother Nature is a btch, as the saying goes, but we certainly can't blame oil companies or chemical plants for *that. And, last time I checked, cows aren't "wildlife".

Oh, you hadn't heard about those oil refineries? Turns out they were biodiesel refineries, making motor fuel out of cooking grease. Oh! The humanity!

Along the Houston Ship Channel, a tanker truck floating in 12-feet-high flood waters slammed into a storage tank at the largest biodiesel refinery in the country, causing a leak of roughly 2,100 gallons [50 barrels of 42 gallons] of vegetable oil. The plant, owned by GreenHunter Energy Inc., uses chicken fat and beef tallow to make biodiesel shipped overseas. It opened just months earlier.

Oneal Galloway of Slidell, La., called to report oil in his neighborhood. The town, north of Lake Pontchartrain, was flooded with Ike's surge. He said oil had washed down the streets.

"It looked like a rainbow in the water," Galloway told the AP. "The residue of the oil is all over our fences, there were brown spots in the yard where it killed the grass."

The likely culprit was not a refinery or oil well, according to Shannon Davis, the director of the parish's public works department, but a neighbor brewing biodiesel in his backyard with used cooking grease.

Of course, Ike did impact the oil and gas producing, transportation and refining infrastructure along the Gulf. Some 52 of the 3,800 or so offshore producing structures toppled, and with them, dozens of wells. Numerous refineries, chemical plants and tank farms on shore were also impacted. The AP breathlessly reports that "enough crude oil was spilled nearly to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool..."

Gee, that sounds like a lot.

But what you've got to understand, first off, is that compared to an Olympic-sized pool, the Gulf of Mexico is big. Really, really big.

Secondly, oil is part of the natural environment. Don't believe me? Here's what your government has to say on the subject:

The levels of natural oil and gas seepage in the Gulf is great. In an area of about 15,000 square kilometers (i.e., a square only 66 nautical miles on a side) may be between 100,000 and 400,000 barrels per year. [For you journalists that only report spills in gallons, that's 4,200,000 to 16,800,000 gallons per year from a relatively small area.]

You may note that the MMS link I provided is from a page about "chemosynthetic communities" of organisms that exist in the deep ocean. They feed on the natural gas and oil seeps. That's one way that Mother Nature handles the problem of oil in the environment.

Thirdly, oil seeps that occur far offshore rarely cause a problem. Gulf oils tend to be much lighter than those in California; on the open water, they either evaporate or are dissipated by wave action. That's what happened to Ike's biggest single offshore spill, a 200 barrel spill from a platform far offshore. (The other large spill reported in the story - 6,300 barrels - was an onshore facility in Texas that took the full brunt of the storm. Apparently the winds and the storm surge were sufficient to almost totally disperse the oil. [I remain skeptical about the quantity.])

There is a picture that accompanies the AP article showing oil sheens on what is identified in the caption as an "oil production field" onshore Cameron Parish, LA. (I see nothing identifiable as an oilfield, but I'll take the DEQ's word for it.) That certainly looks like a mess, but the reader should know that, from the air, small oil spills on still water can appear quite startling.

In fact, my company was responsible for one of the 3,000 spills the article talks about. Our spill was discovered by an overflight by a Coast Guard helicopter. The sheen looked similar to those in the AP's picture, but were of considerably less areal extent. We went through the proscribed reporting process and secured the leak (in effect, a leaking bucket). At the end of the exercise, the reportable released quantity was estimated to be less than a tablespoonful.