Summary of Contemporary Research on the Use of Chemical Dispersants for Deep-Sea Oil Spills

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Oil dispersants, Oil droplets, Oil toxicity, Trade-off analyses, Subsurface dispersant injection (SSDI), Deep-sea blowout

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Mitigation options for deep-sea oil spills are indeed few. In the open ocean, far from land, booming, burning, and mechanical pickup of oil at the sea surface may be of limited value due to wave and wind conditions. The use of chemicals to disperse oil into smaller droplets is predicated on the assumptions that smaller droplets are more easily dissolved into surrounding waters and that smaller droplets are degraded by bacterial action more rapidly than are larger droplets. During the Deepwater Horizon accident, a novel use of dispersants injected directly into the subsurface source of the blowout was undertaken to treat the oil prior to surfacing. The presence of subsurface “plumes” of small droplets and dissolved oil observed during DWH raised the issue of active measures to sequester oil in the subsurface vs. allowing it to surface. Reducing the concentration of volatile organic compounds surfacing near workers was also a stated objective of subsurface dispersant injection (SSDI) application. Aquatic toxicity testing has evolved significantly from a sole focus on short-term mortality to evaluate a variety of sublethal physiological, genotoxic, and immunogenic impacts affecting animal health and fitness of exposed populations. In this chapter we consider a number of pressing – and heretofore unresolved – issues surrounding the use of dispersants as an oil spill mitigation tool. Further, we advocate continued, targeted research to help resolve ongoing controversies regarding dispersant use.

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Summary of Contemporary Research on the Use of Chemical Dispersants for Deep-Sea Oil Spills, in S. A. Murawski, C. H. Ainsworth, S. Gilbert, D. J. Hollander, C. B. Paris, M. Schlüter & D. L. Wetzel (Eds.), Scenarios and Responses to Future Deep Oil Spills: Fighting the Next War, Springer, p. 494-512