Energy & Environment

Texas Still Learning When It Comes to Oil Spill Response

A heavy fuel oil spilled into the Houston Ship Channel after
barge that collided with a ship.

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Texas-City-Y-incident-response-men-140323.jpg
Responders work together to load hundreds of feet of boom onto vessels at the Texas City Dike, March 23, 2014. More than 35,000 feet of boom has been deployed in response to the oil spill that occurred Saturday afternoon, after a bulk carrier and a barge collided in the Houston Ship Channel. [Caption and image credit: U.S Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Manda M. Emery]

Larry McKinney knows a thing or two about the devastation of oil spills.

“These spills here in Galveston are becoming less frequent. That’s the good thing. I oversaw all of the oil spill response for Texas for almost 30 years.”

McKinney is now head of a Gulf research institute at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

But previously, he headed-up natural resource protection for the State of Texas.

A decade or two ago, McKinney spills were more common and the state was less prepared.

“Last ten years I haven’t seen a spill like this, before that, we’d see them, seems like, every other year. So, there has been great improvements in safety.”

And now when spills do happen, there is more equipment stored along the coast, thanks to funding from a state fee on oil.

McKinney says it makes Texas the best state in the Gulf when it comes to a fast response.

But what he says hasn’t improved is what to do about oil if it does reach delicate wetlands.

“I don’t think we’re any better prepared now to deal with clean up. What I’m afraid we’ll see, I hope that we don’t see it, if there is oil that reaches into wetlands and marshes. I hope we don’t see a bunch a people out there with big white pads in the marshes trying to pat the oil up. They will do far more damage that just leaving the oil.”

Eventually, he says bacteria and microbes eat up the oil.

But that’s on-shore, what about the oil that may remain out in the Gulf?

At a research conference that by coincidence is being held in Houston, we talked with Paul Montagna, also with Texas A&M Corpus.

“So I’d be concerned with heavy bunker fuel, it might contain quite a bit of toxic material to it.”

Bunker fuel is what leaked from the barge.

It’s considered a bottom-of-the-barrel, cheap fuel oil for powering big ships.

Because of both — the air pollution created when it’s used and the threat of spills — there have been calls in recent years to ban bunker fuel.

That isn’t considered likely to happen in the near term.

And when accidents do happen, trying to figure where spilled oil will go isn’t easy.

Montanga studied the crude oil that spewed from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blowout.

“That was something that was unexpected, oil floats, so everybody expected the oil to come to the surface and not impact the deep sea. But we found the opposite was happening.”

Some of the oil sank to the bottom of the Gulf where, according to Montagna, it killed off sea creatures and organisms that live thousands of feet below the surface.

That’s why he and other scientists said that while spills may have been polluting the Gulf for decades, there is still much to learn about how best to clean them up.

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