Energy: Looking for the free ecological lunch

Protest Some people on the gulf coast have seen their livelihoods decimated by oil pollution

A leak from a gas rig in the middle of the North Sea is once again throwing up questions about the relative safety of different forms of energy.

The story has so far been told from the human point of view, and why not - clearly it's very much a safety issue when you have inflammable gas percolating up through the sea, and some of the same gas on fire as it emerges from a stack on top of the Elgin rig.

With all the workers now off the rig, scientists are starting to look at the ecological effect of having so much gas bubbling into the water column.

They're the same type of questions that were asked in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and when the stricken Fukushima nuclear power station began flushing radioactive elements into the oceans just over a year ago.

Elgin field gas is mainly methane - the stuff we burn in our cookers - but it also contains related substances: propane and butane, as well as others such as hydrogen sulphide.

A "sheen" of condensate from this is apparently lying on the sea surface, containing up to about 20 tonnes of material.

What's of more concern ecologically is what impact the gases may have had as they bubbled up through the water, in quantities that have not yet been evaluated.

The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) said "there is no indication of a risk of significant pollution to the environment".

Not all scientists are as sanguine.

"Methane and hydrogen sulphide, when dissolved in water, are highly toxic to most higher forms of marine life," said Christoph Gertler, who studies bioremediation at Bangor University.

"It can be assumed that fish will avoid the area immediately affected by the spill, but in any case the effects of hydrogen sulphide and methane are more acute than chronic, and there should be no accumulation in the food chain."

Elgin gas rig Total's Elgin gas rig is the latest to spring a leak

Perhaps no long-term impact, then, but a possible short-term shock.

We're nearly two years on from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which saw oil (along with gases such as methane) streaming into the Gulf of Mexico at rates of about 40,000 barrels a day for months. The impact on the coastline was starkly seen through oiled pelicans, dead seagrasses, and slicks stretching for miles.

But underwater was a different matter. Only now is it becoming clear.

Last week the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) said: "Since February 2010, more than 675 dolphins have stranded in the northern Gulf of Mexico - a much higher rate than the usual average of 74 dolphins per year."

Further along the coast, away from the peak oil plume, stranding rates are normal.

Noaa has declared this an Unusual Mortality Event and is investigating the causes of death. The main clue so far is that some of the dolphins show significant imbalances in hormone levels.

Dead dolphin on Gulf of Mexico coast Scientists have noted a five-fold increase in dolphin strandings on the Gulf coast

In one sense this is really surprising. Dolphins are among the most intelligent marine animals, highly mobile and adaptable.

So why didn't they take evasive action? There are several possible explanations.

You might also ask what the impacts are likely to be on other less intelligent, less mobile and less adaptable creatures.

The gulf is a spawning ground for fish including bluefin tuna; before too long we may discover whether Deepwater Horizon affected spawning during the 2010 Spring.

Half a world away, meanwhile, the impacts of the Fukushima outflow on marine life are equally hard to measure, but appear so far to be negligible.

In October, a US-Japanese research team published a scientific paper concluding that although much more research remained to be done, there appeared to be "minimal impact on marine biota or humans due to direct exposure [to radioactive nuclides] in surrounding ocean waters".

And just last month, one of the scientists involved, Ken Buesseler, told a US scientific meeting that although elements from Fukushima could be detected in organisms 600km from the stricken power station, their radioactivity was dwarfed by the natural radioactivity in seawater.

Research cruise track (WHOI) superimposed on the Kuroshio Current (yellow and red) Scientists have followed the radioactive trail from Fukushima - but have seen little impact

Bans on fishing and on eating fish remain in place, and Japan is setting tighter limits for acceptable levels of radioactive contamination in seafood products.

But overall, Fukushima - the largest ever release of radioactive material to the oceans apart from nuclear bomb explosions - has produced no impact on marine life that has yet been discerned.

(And plans to build a wind farm near Fukushima to replace lost electricity generation capacity and regional employment are under attack from fishermen, who fear the turbine towers will damage their generally productive fishing grounds.)

Meanwhile, marine mammals in the Arctic carry mercury levels high enough that they make toxic eating for indigenous peoples who have traditionally consumed them. The main anthropogenic source of mercury is coal burning, the heavy metal sent up power station chimneys and carried polewards on the wind.

We all need energy of some kind - and the global demand is set to increase as both the human population and our consumption grow.

So ecological footprint is a key factor in determining which energy sources to use - which is why we need to carefully dissect the impact of accidents such as Elgin, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    If you look at the NOAA monthly data for all Cetacean strandings from Florida to Texas:
    and scroll down to the table below the first graph, then you will see a strange thing. Strandings started rising sharply by March 2010. The Deepwater Horizon drilling explosion occurred on 20April2010, some two months later. Most intriguing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Fukushima, Chernobyl and Windscale were all built with 1960's technology. Modern nuclear designs are cleaner and safer.

    Had these power plants been wind turbines, they'd have been decommissioned decades ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The oceans have been polluted and getting worse for many yrs, look at the Great Barrier Reef with its dying coral. Even washing powder is polluting it, but so is the land too with huge amounts of land being polluted by tarmac, cement, insecticides for housing not needed to name a few. With no planning laws to protect green space [ business premises were built on SSI site yrs ago] it will worsen

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    It's the usual problem. We all want something now, but we don't want to pay for it, we don't want it to inconvenience us and we don't want it on our doorstep - wind farms, powerplants (nuclear or otherwise) etc.

    If we want greener, more sustainable energy then there is a price to pay, whether its economic or otherwise (having it on our doorstep).

    Personally I have no issue with nuclear power

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I've always believed that sooner or later we will depend on nuclear technology alone for our energy, the fossil stuff will run out after all. Point is, we still have the time to make it safe and avoid a panicked rush at the last 'minute' which would be more dangerous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    So long and thanks for all the fish

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I find it strange that comments so far have failed to address the different toxic impacts of energy production on the environment. As far as I can see, the more civil engineering involved the more it is supported and subsidised by Government's and the real costs, both environmental and financial, are lost to real scrutiny.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Only trouble is - if the pompous pro-nuclear & anti-wind turnbine lobby are ultimately proved wrong, no-one will be here to tell them so. Seems the most logical route is to adopt a variety of safe & sustainable energy sources. They should certainly not be scuppered by NIMBYs & big business

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    If the £Billions of bogus C02 taxes had gone into 'sensible' energy alternatives instead of paying for bust Govts / banks & army of deliberate single parents (costing the 3 times more than the Royal Navy) we would have been much further down the yellow brick road by now.
    Anyone see the NASA report on how C02 & N20 in the atmosphere has helped deflect 95% of the solar flares.
    Gobal cooling heh

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    "..ecological footprint is a key factor in determining which energy sources to use.."

    for you and me and most readers perhaps. it seems to me that the "ecological footprint" is about the only factor *not* considered when decisions are made because economic arguments ('the profit motive') trump all else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    If anything, Fukushima proved the safety of nuclear power; one of the biggest Tsunamis ever to hit Japan destroyed the plant, yet not a single person has died due to the effects of radiation.
    We can't abandon nuclear power, it's only a 60-year-old technology and there is much improvement to be made. It will hopefully pave the way for the holy grail in terms of power generation - nuclear fusion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I wonder if the well-fed looking American woman in the photo so against fossil fuel extraction has a car, consumes food produced using carbon fuels, has her home heated or cooled by carbon generated electricity. The hypocrisy inherent in any American criticism of fossil fuel extraction is breathtaking given their consumption. Ditch your gas guzzlers then get your placards out...

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @5 Windmills linked to loss of topsoil?? Exactly how? All the wind farms I've seen are in fields with crops or animals chewing the grass. Any topsoil removed in construction is normally used by the farmer else where or sold to landscape gardeners. Building a house would displace more topsoil then errecting one wind turbine. And gravel driveways and paved over gardens have impacted birdlife more

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    All of the gases named have low boiling points, much lower than the temperature of the sea. They also have low solubilities in water so will not persist for long.

    Methane -164 degrees C
    Propane -42 degrees C
    Butane -1 degrees C
    Hydrogen Sulfide -82 degrees C

    The hydrocarbons are chemically very unreactive, but may deplete the water of oxygen. Hydrogen sulfide is toxic to higher life forms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    We just have to be patient. None of the current energy supplies out there are particularly good for the environment; in fact most are pretty bad. But it's only a matter of time before new technologies such as Nuclear Fission and hydrogen powered cars etc are achieved and then things will improve greatly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I quite agree, we need new nuclear power, particularly from thorium since the liquid fluoride reactors are safer and cleaner to operate. Thorium's much more abundant than uranium anyway and is also 100% usable as nuclear fuel compared to uranium which is

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.


    No, we wouldn't.. the nuclear industry wasted over half a century, failing dismally to produce electricity 'too cheap to meter'

    Market forces dictate that since Fission tech etc is commercially unproven, the industry will continue to milk Fusion tech for profits and spend a pittance on research..while demanding taxpayers fund billions of dollars for every plant that requires decommissioning..

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    It's a shame that all fossil fuels have a negative impact on the environment 1 way or another. Most renewables have problems with cost, reliability etc. Nuclear is in many ways the 'cleanest' & people overestimate the danger from radiation but it has significant drawbacks. It would be nice to suggest we might reduce power consumption but I'm not that optimistic. I'm just sorry for your children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The only way we can solve any of this is by wanting less, desiring less, living with less. But it must be a collective effort. As the nation who began it all, with the Industrial Revolution, Britain could - perhaps should - lead the way; show other countries that it can be done. If a highly developed economy like ours can adopt a new, sustainable model, then perhaps other nations will follow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Too many people consuming far too many natural resources. What's the answer? Dunno, but let's all keep breeding and reduce the resources even more.


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