A Bubbling Brew

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I don’t understand the commotion over oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico when a drilling operation went sour. Oil has always oozed out of the ground to foul land, lakes, and oceans. That’s how people first discovered the stuff.

In nature some oil on the surface evaporates off as naphtha (probably the basis of the ancient Greek fire). Other oil is digested by bacteria converting it into simple organic compounds that other organisms feast on, leading to a localized exuberant biodiversity. The heavier components of oil remain as lumps called bitumen or asphalt.

The Dead Sea was called Lake Asphaltites because of the gooey pebbles that floated onto the surface from underwater seeps. This asphalt was used on Egyptian mummies. Oil found floating on lakes or in puddles was used by Indians to caulk canoes, and as medicines. In California’s uber-environmentalist Santa Barbara County, an estimated 11 to 160 barrels of oil seep into the ocean daily and have for countless centuries; the locals have made attempts at capping it.

Oil exists beneath the surface of the earth under pressure that causes it to seep to the surface by any available route. When a well is drilled into a pocket of contained oil the pressure forces it to gush out and over the wellhead. The pressure in the pool of drilled oil gradually falls, and the seep ceases. In this way, oil drilling actually has stopped numerous spills of oil onto the surface where it fouled land and water for eons.

The British Petroleum accident allows environmentalists to make arguments against offshore drilling. If environmentalists really wanted to preserve pristine nature, they would be appalled that drilling for oil has interfered with widespread oil seeps that enriched the environment before mankind messed things up.


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