Is Oil in the Gulf a Naturally Occurring Phenomenon?

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Scientists remind us that not all the oil floating around in the Gulf is from an industrial accident. Just most of it.

Lately conservative commentators seem to be making the point that quite a bit of oil simply seeps up from the ocean floor naturally, without being loosed by a drill. Radio host Rush Limbaugh actually called the spill “not exceptional” and “natural” despite the more than 15,000 barrels a day rising from the seabed at the Deepwater Horizon site.

But behind Limbaugh’s lip some scientific truth does lurk: some seepage from the sea floor is actually natural. A 2003 report from the National Academies, estimates 980,000 barrels seep into the Gulf of Mexico each year. And moreover, there are as many as 600 points on the Gulf’s floor where seeps occur, according to a 2000 Earth Satellite Corporation study.

So ol’ Rushbo is sorta right. But here’s where he gets it wrong: the water does have its own natural way of breaking oil down gently into the ecosystem so that it doesn’t hurt anything. Bacteria breaks it down and it turns into carbon dioxide. And, here’s the key difference: because the oil is released in many places over a vast period of time, the oil is very thin and can’t do any harm. But BP’s spill is rushing into the water very fast and from the same place at once, causing very thick plumes that can easily choke life away.

Scientists are studying the ways that nature takes care of its own oil spills in order to apply them to more dangerous human spills. The sea science magazine Oceanus spent time with scientists who have been analyzing this phenomenon for years.