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Oil spill full of methane, adding new concerns

Scientists say gas could suffocate marine life, create 'dead zones'

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Lee Celano / Reuters
Work crews on boats gather to clean marshland impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon Spill near Bay Jimmy, in the Barataria Bay of Louisiana on Thursday.
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Thousands of gallons of oil are gushing from the busted well, fouling the water and coastline.

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updated 12:53 p.m. ET June 18, 2010

NEW ORLEANS - It is an overlooked danger in oil spill crisis: The crude gushing from the well contains vast amounts of natural gas that could pose a serious threat to the Gulf of Mexico's fragile ecosystem.

The oil emanating from the seafloor contains about 40 percent methane, compared with about 5 percent found in typical oil deposits, said John Kessler, a Texas A&M University oceanographer who is studying the impact of methane from the spill.

That means huge quantities of methane have entered the Gulf, scientists say, potentially suffocating marine life and creating "dead zones" where oxygen is so depleted that nothing lives.

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"This is the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history," Kessler said.

Methane is a colorless, odorless and flammable substance that is a major component in the natural gas used to heat people's homes. Petroleum engineers typically burn off excess gas attached to crude before the oil is shipped off to the refinery. That's exactly what BP has done as it has captured more than 7.5 million gallons (28 million liters) of crude from the breached well.

A BP spokesman said the company was burning about 30 million cubic feet (850,000 cubic meters) of natural gas daily from the source of the leak, adding up to about 450 million cubic feet (12.7 million cubic meters) since the containment effort started 15 days ago. That's enough gas to heat about 450,000 homes for four days.

But that figure does not account for gas that eluded containment efforts and wound up in the water, leaving behind huge amounts of methane.

Stack of pipes
BP said a containment cap sitting over the leaking well funneled about 619,500 gallons (2.3 million liters) of oil to a drillship waiting on the ocean surface on Wednesday. Meanwhile, a specialized flare siphoning oil and gas from a stack of pipes on the seafloor burned roughly 161,700 gallons (612,000 liters).

The first of two relief wells being drilled to plug the massive Gulf of Mexico leak also was within 200 feet of the blown-out well, a BP executive said Friday.

Kent Wells, senior vice president of exploration and production, said the next step will be to slowly hone in on the ruptured well and eventually plug it.

Meanwhile, signaling a shift in strategy to fight against BP's ruptured well in the Gulf, the Coast Guard is ramping up efforts to capture oil closer to shore.

Adm. Thad Allen said Friday an estimated 2,000 private boats in the so-called "vessels of opportunity" program will be more closely linked through a tighter command and control structure to direct them to locations less than 50 miles offshore to skim the oil.

Allen, the point man for the federal response to the spill, previously had said surface containment efforts would be concentrated much farther offshore.

Estimates of the oil being siphoned from the well a mile below the Gulf are growing. Allen said more than 1.2 million gallons was sucked up to containment vessels Thursday.

'So devastated'
Thursday was focused on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers chastised BP CEO Tony Hayward during hearings into the spill.

Testifying as oil still surged into the Gulf at between 1.47 million (5.6 million liters) and 2.52 million gallons (9.5 million liters) a day, coating more coastal land and marshes, Hayward declared "I am so devastated with this accident," "deeply sorry" and "so distraught."

But he also said he was out of the loop on decisions at the well and disclaimed knowledge of any of the myriad problems on and under the Deepwater Horizon rig before the deadly explosion. BP was leasing the rig the Deepwater Horizon that exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the environmental disaster.

"BP blew it," said Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak chairman of the House investigations panel that held the hearing. "You cut corners to save money and time."

As for the methane, scientists are still trying to measure how much has escaped into the water and how it may damage the Gulf and its creatures.

  Will Gulf spill spur action on energy bill?
June 18: NBC’s Ken Strickland explains whether the new energy bill will increase the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

The Daily Rundown

The dangerous gas has played an important role throughout the disaster and response. A bubble of methane is believed to have burst up from the seafloor and ignited the rig explosion. Methane crystals also clogged a four-story containment box that engineers earlier tried to place on top of the breached well.

Now it is being looked at as an environmental concern.

The small microbes that live in the sea have been feeding on the oil and natural gas in the water and are consuming larger quantities of oxygen, which they need to digest food. As they draw more oxygen from the water, it creates two problems. When oxygen levels drop low enough, the breakdown of oil grinds to a halt; and as it is depleted in the water, most life can't be sustained. The National Science Foundation funded research on methane in the Gulf amid concerns about the depths of the oil plume and questions what role natural gas was playing in keeping the oil below the surface, said David Garrison, a program director in the federal agency who specializes in biological oceanography.

"This has the potential to harm the ecosystem in ways that we don't know," Garrison said. "It's a complex problem."

In early June, a research team led by Samantha Joye of the Institute of Undersea Research and Technology at the University of Georgia investigated a 15-mile-long plume drifting southwest from the leak site. They said they found methane concentrations up to 10,000 times higher than normal, and oxygen levels depleted by 40 percent or more.

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