Dire Realities of the Methane Predictament in the Gulf of Mexico

There has been a spate of articles recently throughout the corporate and alternative media depicting the methane gas predicament associated with the BP Gulf Oil Spill.  Many of these perspectives portray an alarming state of affairs concerning extremely high concentrations of methane that have accumulated in numerous areas in the Gulf of Mexico. The two primary issues of concern are the methane effects in the aquatic environment and the methane gas accumulations in the atmosphere above the Gulf and within contiguous land masses.  In regard to the latter, the weather patterns will reign supreme.  Once methane rises above the surface of the Gulf, where it goes, how it accumulates and what its toxic effects on life will be, is going to be dictated to a great extent by the weather.

“How’s the weather down there?”  When we ask each other this question, aren’t we really asking,  “How are the elements (elementals) treating us?”  Well, this question will never be more important to the residents rimming the Gulf of Mexico as we gear up for a long, hot, deep south summer with its likely share of hurricanes, tropical storms and depressions, which, by the way, can be a good or bad thing for “natural” oil spill remediation depending on numerous factors and circumstances.

Back to the methane issue and the volumes of gas that are currently pouring into the Gulf by way of the gushing well, as well as the many leaks and seeps, cracks and fissures, which have provided entry into the water from a growing area around the wellhead.  Some who are privy to authoritative info have pointed directly to a large gash, as well as other smaller gashes, which have opened up in the sea floor throughout the area since the wellhead first blew.  The current flow of oil out of the riser is approximately 35% of the total volume of outflow.   Much of the remaining composition is methane, some of which may be burned off by the flames which appear on a screenshot from the live feed.

Some of the leaks and seeps that have appeared since April 20th are the result of the venting of the enormous pressures of this very deep high compression well.  Various experts in the Oil & Gas Exploration and Drilling Industry have speculated this pressure to be as high as 100,000 psi which would explain much of the erratic behavior of this unprecedented gusher.  It has functioned as a humongous sandblaster of sorts, which will therefore make it difficult to even keep a cap on it for any extended period of time.

When you drill through the earth’s crust and into the mantle at depths of 20,000 to 35,000 feet, the Russians have consistently encountered pressures far exceeding those that exist in more shallow prospects.  They also understand that such pressures demand a proportionate upgrade in technology and equipment (which did not happen with the Deepwater Horizon, if catastrophic blowouts are to be avoided.

The more serious issue here is that the surrounding sea floor is being profoundly undermined, hence the foundation of the wellhead is progressively weakening thereby creating new exit points for methane gas.  Many seasoned observers have noted that there has been a piercing of the wellhead, itself.  This predicament will necessitate a unique and more thorough response if the outflow is to be completely stopped or if all the oil and gas is to be captured by a “containment and capture” solution.

Another major source of methane gas comes from frozen hydrate crystals which exist on the sea floor in vast quantities.  Due to very cold temperatures and high pressure, they stay locked in place until they are awakened from their slumber by the very conditions that now predominate in the region around the wellhead.  The gushing oil may be as hot as 300 to 400 F, which greatly affects the undersea dynamics, and especially the state of these hydrates.  Also, it is quite noteworthy that we have no experience with the introduction of massive volumes of dispersants at the wellhead under those extraordinary conditions. What will be the ultimate effects on methane conversion and release throughout the region in terms of ramping up an already very dynamic and volatile situation on the sea floor?  More significantly, what are the unforeseen consequences to the water (perhaps aquacide) and the fragile ecosystems that abound there?

There are other sources of methane, which occur under the sea floor in various types of “repositories”, that are being affected by movements of the earth, as well as by dramatic temperature fluctuations.  These reservoirs are undoubtedly releasing methane gas, as are the sea floor surface beds of trapped frozen methane crystals.  Almost all of the released methane gas from these sources will eventually rise to the surface of the Gulf, some of it accumulating as hovering gas bubbles which will then dissipate over time. They concentrate and disperse, come and go according to the scientific properties of methane gas behavior.

Methane does have a very deleterious effect on all aerobic marine life in that it depletes oxygen very rapidly in water.  This is the biggest concern, and it can have greater impact on life than the toxicity of both the oil and the dispersants combined, dangerous interactions and all.  We state the obvious when we say that all aerobic organisms needs oxygen, and that such life will die very quickly when oxygen concentrations drop below critical thresholds (How long would you live holding your breath under water?!).As the methane rises through the higher layers of the Gulf of Mexico in aquatic strata where the water is warmer, this problem becomes worse due to the fact that warmer water simply holds less oxygen than cold water. 

This discussion is not to diminish in any way the extremely harmful toxicities associated with the myriad of chemicals and contaminants found in the dispersants (e.g. COREXIT) and petroleum derivatives.  Clearly, the Gulf of Mexico has been relentlessly turned into a petrochemical cesspool of “ginormous” proportions by this and other simultaneous gushers and leaks, which will take decades to remediate in any meaningful way.

Perhaps the most significant factor on top of the Gulf, however, is the weather.  Low pressure weather systems, hot and humid conditions, and stagnant air conditions characterized by little wind can exacerbate the effects of methane gas accumulations around the coastlines as well as many miles inland.  The coming tropical storms and depressions, as well as the hurricanes, will provide vectors of dissemination for the aforementioned chemicals and contaminants to rain down on the many coastal communities, and beyond.  In this regard, the entire state of Florida is particularly vulnerable due to obvious reasons.

The upshot of this story demonstrates the need to get to know your ambient air and rainwater.  This recommendation is vitally important!  There are specific ways that this can be accomplished which will be covered in a future essay.  In the meantime, it is wise to get to know your environment in the most intimate way, so that you may respond quickly and decisively to any situation that might arise, especially regarding methane bubbles should they migrate over coastal communities.

Dr. Tom Termotto is the National Coordinator of the Gulf Oil Spill Remediation Conference (International Citizen’s Initiative). Read other articles by Tom.

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  1. BartFargo said on July 14th, 2010 at 9:33am #

    Thank you for some actual explanation of how methane bubbles and seeps work, rather than the ridiculous article being passed around lately about a doomsday methane bubble explosion.