Scientists studying the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster are perhaps paying the heftiest price around for oil — reports that they are forking over the equivalent of $76.3 million per barrel for samples of oil from the Macondo Well, obtained by Federal entity The National Institute of Standards Technology. (At least that money isn’t lining B.P.’s pockets.) The samples, known as Standard Reference Material (SRM) 2779, consist of five 1.2 ml ampoules, and they will provide vital assistance to scientists researching the long-term impact of the oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.

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Scientists working in support of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) are presently working to determine the long-term ecological impact of the disaster. The worst offshore spill in the history of the US caused a “wide expanse and variety of natural resources” to be exposed to – and potentially impacted by – the oil, according to the NIST. Environmental activists have observed an increase in deaths of bottle-nosed dolphins and endangered brown pelicans since the 2010 disaster, and locals have noted that tar balls continue to wash up on the Gulf shore.

The NIST reports that tens of thousands of environmental samples were collected as part of the NRDA, including water, sediment, biota and various forms of oil so as to determine pre and post-spill conditions in the Gulf and its surrounding shores. Reports of a petroleum “smell” in June 2010, just a few months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion were determined to be the result of a six-year-old leak from a different well, which had been steadily pouring a half barrel of oil into the Gulf each day. Under these conditions, it will be necessary to determine the damage caused by oil from the Macondo Well, and distinguish it from damage caused by other leaking Gulf of Mexico rigs.

With tens of thousands of barrels of oil spilling from the Macondo Well into the Gulf of Mexico, unadulterated samples of the oil were among the hardest for researchers to gather. The samples which now make up SRM 2779 were collected on May 21, 2010 aboard the Discover Enterprise during a failed attempt to cap the well. The NIST reports that it was taken from “the insertion tube that was receiving oil directly from the Macondo well during response operations”, adding “the oil was collected into cleaned 2.5 liter glass bottles,” after which it was analyzed by both the NIST and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

A team of researchers from Louisiana State University assisted in gathering the samples, and Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental toxicology, told that his researchers did so “with the understanding that the university would receive as much as a barrel to use in research.” Instead they received only a few hundred milliliters — not enough for them to do their own tests of the oil’s make up. But Overton remains positive on the SRM 2779 samples: “What (they are) doing is important for confirming the quality assurance of future tests involving the effects of the spill.

+ National Institute for Standards and Technology


Lead Image Credit: L. Sander/NIST