Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fidley Watch - Bugs

Last month a NOAA scientist, Dr. Bill Lehr, told a group of Congressional staff investigators on a conference call that a controversial National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report claiming that nearly three-quarters of the oil from the Gulf oil spill has already been addressed was released by White House officials and not scientists at NOAA. Although White House officials at an early August press briefing had said that the report had been thoroughly peer reviewed, Dr. Lehr told congressional investigators that the data backing up the assertions made in the report is still unavailable and that peer review of the report is still not complete.

“This is yet another in a long line of examples where the White House’s pre-occupation with the public relations of the oil spill has superseded the realities on the ground,” says Rep. Darrel Issa (R, CA), ranking member of the House Committee on oversight and Government Reform. Issa says there is a perception that the Obama White House is more concerned about appearing competent than actually making sure the massive oil spill in the Gulf gets cleaned-up as quickly as possible.

It is understandable that the White House would like the Gulf spill to go away, but if rhetoric isn’t the answer, maybe bugs are the answer.

Also last month, but too late for the White House to claim credit, scientists discovered a new type of oil-eating microbe that is suddenly thriving in the Gulf of Mexico.

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California reported that the microbe works without significantly depleting oxygen in the water. The findings suggest a great potential for bacteria to help dispose of oil plumes in the deep-sea, according to a statement released by researcher Terry Hazen.

“Our findings show that the influx of oil profoundly altered the microbial community by significantly stimulating deep-sea” cold temperature bacteria that are closely related to known petroleum-degrading microbes, Hazen reports.

Hazen suggested that the bacteria might have adapted over time due to periodic leaks and natural seeps of oil in the Gulf.

The research was supported in part by the University of Oklahoma Research Foundation and the US Department of Energy, but mostly by an existing grant with the Energy Biosciences Institute, a partnership led by the University of California Berkeley and the University of Illinois that is funded by a $500 million, 10-year grant from BP.

This discovery may not let BP off the hook for the spill, but it’s nice to see industry get credit where it’s due.