Monday, February 21, 2011

Methane gas another threat from BP oil spill

Published: Monday, February 21, 2011 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 9:06 p.m.

"Methane, the volatile gas that triggered the explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig last April, made up at least a third of the total volume of material discharged into the Gulf of Mexico during the three-month disaster.

While the crude oil received all the attention, methane was largely overlooked as a component of the spill, despite its potential to also cause environmental damage.

As scientists try to figure out how much methane was released, the fate of the gas has become somewhat controversial. A report in Nature Geoscience recently tried to estimate the amount of methane released -- 260,000 to 500,000 tons. The research sets a higher figure compared to previous studies, and calls into question earlier assertions that bacteria consumed all the gas released.

By the highest estimates, the burst rig pumped more than 6 million barrels of oil -- about 800,000 tons -- into the Gulf of Mexico between late last April and mid-July, according to the Nature Geoscience report. There are 42 gallons in a barrel.

During the same period, as much as 500,000 tons of gas -- with an energy equivalent of more than 3 million barrels of oil -- may have also escaped into the Gulf of Mexico, based on the well's reservoir capacity.

Methane and other gases released during the spill are a concern because they can disrupt the balance of life in the Gulf, and persist for years in the cold, deep sea environment. In addition to feeding the growth of bacteria, the substance -- which dissolves in water -- can be toxic to sea life.

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