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
"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 of crude from the
A BP spokesman said the company was burning about 30
million cubic feet of natural gas daily from the source
of the leak, adding up to about 450 million cubic feet
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.