Petroleum dynamics in the sea and influence of subsea dispersant injection during Deepwater Horizon

Edited by David M. Karl, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI, and approved May 16, 2017 (received for review July 28, 2016)
August 28, 2017
114 (38) 10065-10070

Significance

Environmental risks posed by deep-sea petroleum releases are difficult to predict and assess. We developed a physical model of the buoyant jet of petroleum liquid droplets and gas bubbles gushing into the deep sea, coupled with simulated liquid–gas equilibria and aqueous dissolution kinetics of petroleum compounds, for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Simulation results are validated by comparisons with extensive observation data collected in the sea and atmosphere near the release site. Simulations predict that chemical dispersant, injected at the wellhead to mitigate environmental harm, increased the entrapment of volatile compounds in the deep sea and thereby improved air quality at the sea surface. Subsea dispersant injection thus lowered human health risks and accelerated response during the intervention.

Abstract

During the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a substantial fraction of the 600,000–900,000 tons of released petroleum liquid and natural gas became entrapped below the sea surface, but the quantity entrapped and the sequestration mechanisms have remained unclear. We modeled the buoyant jet of petroleum liquid droplets, gas bubbles, and entrained seawater, using 279 simulated chemical components, for a representative day (June 8, 2010) of the period after the sunken platform’s riser pipe was pared at the wellhead (June 4–July 15). The model predicts that 27% of the released mass of petroleum fluids dissolved into the sea during ascent from the pared wellhead (1,505 m depth) to the sea surface, thereby matching observed volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions to the atmosphere. Based on combined results from model simulation and water column measurements, 24% of released petroleum fluid mass became channeled into a stable deep-water intrusion at 900- to 1,300-m depth, as aqueously dissolved compounds (∼23%) and suspended petroleum liquid microdroplets (∼0.8%). Dispersant injection at the wellhead decreased the median initial diameters of simulated petroleum liquid droplets and gas bubbles by 3.2-fold and 3.4-fold, respectively, which increased dissolution of ascending petroleum fluids by 25%. Faster dissolution increased the simulated flows of water-soluble compounds into biologically sparse deep water by 55%, while decreasing the flows of several harmful compounds into biologically rich surface water. Dispersant injection also decreased the simulated emissions of VOCs to the atmosphere by 28%, including a 2,000-fold decrease in emissions of benzene, which lowered health risks for response workers.
After the blowout at the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, between 600,000 and 900,000 tons of petroleum liquid and natural gas erupted continuously from the damaged Macondo wellhead at >1,500 m water depth for 84 d (1, 2). During this deep-sea release, ∼25% of the released mass of petroleum fluids, or 150,000–220,000 tons, was interpreted to have dissolved into the water column (3). For example, >96% of the released C1–C3 hydrocarbons (methane, ethane, and propane), benzene, and toluene did not surface (3). These water-soluble, volatile compounds were largely entrapped in a hydrocarbon-rich water mass that formed a stable intrusion at 900- to 1,300-m depth (2, 4, 5) in the local density stratification (6). The composition of this deep-water intrusion (2) suggested that the detected hydrocarbons were introduced primarily by the selective aqueous dissolution of released petroleum compounds, while residual “fluid particles” continued a buoyant ascent toward the sea surface. Here, the term fluid particles refers collectively to petroleum liquid droplets, bubbles composed of natural gas or supercritical fluid, and immiscible two-phase entities containing petroleum liquid and gas.
These events have not been documented for any previous oil spill. Some efforts (7, 8) to model these phenomena neglected relevant physical or chemical processes, and more complete attempts (9, 10) still do not fully couple the evolving states, compositions, and properties of fluid particles under depth-varying pressure and temperature conditions. However, the pressure-dependent, temperature-dependent, and composition-dependent states and properties of petroleum fluids influence their behaviors in the deep sea (11), and only indirect observations of these phenomena are available (2, 4, 12, 13). Additionally, the influence of subsea dispersant injection was not tested systematically. Corexit EC9500A dispersant was injected initially at the end of the fallen riser pipe and subsequently at the pared wellhead during 67 d of the release (SI Appendix, Fig. S1), but the impact of this unprecedented intervention strategy remains debated.
Here, we explain the processes that entrapped water-soluble petroleum compounds and liquid microdroplets in the deep sea, thereby restraining emissions of volatile compounds to the atmosphere during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. A mechanistic numerical model is developed to simulate near-field processes within a ∼10-km radius of the wellhead (Fig. 1 and SI Appendix, Fig. S2). Model predictions are validated more broadly than any previously published near-field model of the disaster, based on comparisons with extensive field observations in the sea and atmosphere (Figs. 13). Model boundary conditions are parameterized from marine, meteorological, and technical measurements recorded on June 8, 2010, a date chosen based on the availability of observations (Figs. 2 and 3, and SI Appendix, Fig. S1) after the damaged Macondo wellhead was pared above the blowout preventer (June 3) (1). However, no chemical observations in the sea or atmosphere from the disaster are used to calibrate the model. The resulting insights into petroleum dynamics in the sea allow understanding of the factors governing environmental and human risks for the period after the riser pipe was cut until the release was stopped (June 4–July 15, 2010).
Fig. 1.
Conceptual representation of the dynamics of petroleum fluids and affected water masses during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, after the riser pipe was cut (June 4–July 15). Petroleum liquid and gas fluids gush out of the pared wellhead. The resulting vertical buoyant jet of petroleum fluid particles entrains ambient water, generating a buoyant plume (6). At the predicted maximum height of rise (1,070-m depth for the plume centerline), water in the buoyant plume begins to descend to form an intrusion layer. At the trap height (1,100-m depth), the density of the modeled descending plume matches that of the surrounding ambient seawater, producing a deep-water hydrocarbon-rich intrusion that spans 900- to 1,300-m depth and contains water, dissolved petroleum compounds, and liquid droplets. Within 10 km downstream from the pared wellhead, most of the mass flow rate of fluid particles, having diameters of ≥140 µm, are predicted to separate from the buoyant plume, the descending plume, or from the deep-water intrusion, after which they continue ascent toward the sea surface according to their individual slip velocities, while also advected horizontally by ambient currents. Model predictions are validated with chemical and physical observations in the atmosphere and in the deep sea, as explained in the text and in Fig. 3. Airplane graphic courtesy of Pixabay/Clker-Free-Vector-Images.
Fig. 2.
Time of arrival of petroleum fluid particle mass at the sea surface according to predictions by TAMOC with dispersant injection at the pared wellhead (green solid line), predictions of TAMOC without dispersant injection at the pared wellhead (blue solid line) (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.14), and field observation before the riser pipe was cut (vertical pink line). The reportedly observed value (3) is the time (∼3 h) to observe a visual reduction in the fresh surface slick at the sea surface near the wellhead during dispersant application tests before the riser was cut. We interpret the reported field observation as the time of arrival of the majority of fluid particle mass at the sea surface without subsea dispersant injection.
Fig. 3.
Model predictions and reported observations of chemical composition in the deep-water intrusion and at the sea surface during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, after the riser pipe was cut (June 4–July 15). (A) Abundances of the readily soluble compounds, C2–C3 and DOSS, in the deep-water hydrocarbon-rich intrusion, expressed as the fraction of mass present in the intrusion relative to that released from the wellhead, normalized to C1 (Fi,methane, SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.9 and Eq. S8). Reported field observations of Fi,methane (2, 5, 17) (green) agree reasonably with predictions of our model (blue). (B) Abundances of semisoluble and sparingly soluble compounds in the deep-water intrusion, expressed as the fraction of mass present in the intrusion relative to that released from the wellhead, normalized to benzene (Fi,benzene, SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.9 and Eqs. S9 and S10). Estimated Fi,benzene values from field observations (green) exhibit reasonable agreement with our model predictions (blue) for 12 semisoluble compounds (toluene to C2-naphthalenes, having hypothetical subcooled liquid aqueous solubilities of 10−4.5 to 10−2 mol⋅L−1 at deep-sea conditions), assuming dispersant injection. Adjusting our model predictions for the presence of liquid microdroplets (yellow) improves the agreement with field observations for 16 sparingly soluble compounds (phenanthrene to pristane, having hypothetical subcooled liquid aqueous solubilities <10−4.5 mol⋅L−1). Observed Fi,benzene values (green) were determined here, based on 4,205 quantified concentration data for 29 individual petroleum compounds reportedly measured (40) during June 4–July 15 at 374 sampling locations at 900- to 1,300-m depth, situated at 1- to 10-km distance from the wellhead (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.9). Error bounds (displayed as whiskers) designate the 95% probability intervals of observed values. (C) Abundances of selected volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at the sea surface, assuming dispersant injection, expressed as the fraction of mass arriving at the sea surface relative to that released from the wellhead (SI Appendix, SI Text, Eq. S23). Reported atmospheric observations during May 20–23 and June 8, 10, and 15–27 (3) (green) exhibit approximate agreement with predictions by TAMOC (blue). (D) TAMOC predictions of the abundances of selected VOCs at the sea surface in the absence of dispersant injection, expressed as the fraction of mass arriving at the sea surface relative to that released from the wellhead (SI Appendix, SI Text, Eq. S23). No field observations are available for comparison.

Results and Discussion

Initial Size Distributions of Petroleum Liquid Droplets and Gas Bubbles.

According to both thermodynamic calculations (11) and observations (1), the Macondo reservoir fluid occurred as separated petroleum liquid and natural gas phases at the pared wellhead at 1,505-m depth. Because direct observations of fluid particle sizes at the source are not available, we use a jet-droplet formation model (VDROP-J) to predict the initial sizes of liquid droplets and gas bubbles (14). VDROP-J predicts initial stabilized size distributions by simulating the breakup and coalescence of droplets and bubbles above the wellhead. Subsea dispersant injection is assumed to affect the initial size distributions of fluid particles by reducing the interfacial tension (14) (SI Appendix, Table S1).
With subsea dispersant injection, VDROP-J predicts a median diameter by volume (d50) of 1.3 mm for released liquid droplets and a d50 of 2.6 mm for released gas bubbles (Fig. 4). These values are similar to the d50 = 1–2 mm predicted by Spaulding et al. (9, 15) for their (bimodally distributed) droplet sizes, also assuming dispersant injection. Our thermodynamic model predicts that natural gas bubbles released at 1,505-m depth are ∼190 times more dense than natural gas bubbles at the sea surface, but that their interfacial tension with seawater remains high (12 mN⋅m−1 with dispersant injection) such that their simulated sizes (0.3- to 4.7-mm diameter, according to VDROP-J) are similar to near-surface bubbles. Although these individual bubbles contain ∼190 times more mass than a typical near-surface bubble, they remain nonetheless buoyant in seawater, having initial rise velocities relative to surrounding water (“slip velocities”) of 1.7–18 cm⋅s−1, which are similar to slip velocities of near-surface bubbles. Droplets of released petroleum liquid, to the contrary, are slightly less dense at 1,505-m depth (708 kg⋅m−3) than at the sea surface (∼820 kg⋅m−3), due to the presence of light C1–C5 compounds in the petroleum liquid phase under such elevated pressures (SI Appendix, Table S1). However, the densities of both droplets and bubbles quickly increase during their early ascent in the water column, due to rapid dissolution of light compounds.
Fig. 4.
Binned size distributions of liquid droplets and gas bubbles predicted by the VDROP-J model (14) after 200 m of ascent without dissolution, for June 8. (A) Liquid droplets without dispersant; (B) liquid droplets with dispersant; (C) gas bubbles without dispersant; and (D) gas bubbles with dispersant.
To elucidate the coupled effects of transport, dissolution, and phase transitions for the initially released droplets and bubbles predicted by VRDOP-J, we developed the Texas A&M Oilspill (Outfall) Calculator (16) (TAMOC) (Fig. 1 and SI Appendix, Fig. S2). This modeling suite includes modules to predict the coupled jet and plume dynamics of the buoyant petroleum liquid, gas, and entrained water in the deep sea, and it also simulates the dynamic rise and dissolution of individual droplets and bubbles in the ocean water column. Petroleum fluid properties and liquid–gas partitioning are assumed to depend on pressure, temperature, and fluid compositions according to the Peng–Robinson equation of state with volume translation and other empirical expressions, based on a model composition of 279 components (11) (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.7). The Peng–Robinson equation of state with volume translation is used widely in the petroleum industry to predict the equilibrium gas–liquid distributions and densities of reservoir petroleum fluids under varying environmental conditions. Biodegradation processes are assumed negligible in the modeled near-field region of the water column (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.17).

Controls on Aqueous Dissolution of Petroleum Fluids in the Water Column.

According to these comprehensive model simulations, 27% of the mass flow rate of released petroleum fluids became dissolved into the water column and did not arrive at the sea surface on June 8, assuming subsea dispersant injection (SI Appendix, Table S2). Dissolved petroleum compounds were channeled predominantly (23%) into the deep-water intrusion (900- to 1,300-m depth), with a smaller percentage (4%) dissolving in the higher water column (0- to 900-m depth) (Figs. 1 and 5). These model predictions corroborate a previous estimate of ∼25% of the mass flow rate of released petroleum fluids becoming aqueously dissolved in the water column, based on atmospheric observations (3).
Fig. 5.
Predicted apportionments at the near-field boundary (∼10 km distance from the wellhead), for petroleum fluids released during the Deepwater Horizon disaster after the riser pipe was cut (June 4–July 15, 2010). Values are presented for model simulations (A) with subsea dispersant injection and (B) without subsea dispersant injection, for June 8. *The apportionment to the upper water column does not account for dissolution of petroleum compounds from oil slicks at the sea surface. **The apportionment to liquid petroleum microdroplets in the deep-water intrusion is based on observations and model predictions obtained with dispersant injection; we assumed the same value for the case without dispersant injection.
What mechanisms entrapped petroleum compounds in deep water of the Gulf of Mexico after the riser pipe was cut on June 3? Our TAMOC simulations indicate that water-soluble compounds became partly or wholly dissolved in entrained seawater during ascent of a buoyant plume that rose to a maximum centerline height of 1,070-m depth before collapsing to form a neutrally buoyant hydrocarbon-rich intrusion that spanned depths of 900–1,300 m (Figs. 1 and 3). The behavior of the initially ascending plume and the depth of neutral buoyancy for the hydrocarbon-rich intrusion are controlled by the petroleum fluid release rate, petroleum fluid properties, conditions at the release location, and the ambient stratification and prevailing current profile (6).
For water-soluble, volatile compounds, which included the C1–C4 hydrocarbons and benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX), rapid dissolution was facilitated by the high surface-to-volume ratios of small droplets and bubbles formed above the wellhead (Fig. 4). The high pressures (>10 bar) encountered at >100-m depths enhance the dissolution of C1–C3 hydrocarbons relative to more shallow depths. For example, thermodynamic calculations indicate that C1, C2, and C3 in natural gas bubbles became 140, 33, and 11 times more water soluble at the release depth (1,505 m) compared with conditions at the sea surface (11). After the rapid removal of these C1–C3 compounds by aqueous dissolution, gas bubbles that formed near the wellhead are predicted to condense into 100% liquid droplets within their initial 700 m of ascent, illustrating a counterintuitive and surprising fluid phase transition (SI Appendix, Fig. S3 and SI Text, S-1.6).
The dissolution of water-soluble compounds was further facilitated by the prolonged immersion of petroleum fluids in the sea before their arrival at the sea surface. For June 8, TAMOC predicts ascent times of 4.6–10 h for the middle 80% of the surfacing mass, with small droplets (≤900 μm at the wellhead) taking longer times; 50% of the mass flow rate of residual fluids contributing to surface slicks arrived at the sea surface within 6 h after their release at 1,505-m depth, assuming subsea dispersant injection (Fig. 2). The model predicts that 98% of the mass flow rate contributing to the surface slicks arrived at the sea surface within a narrow 1.0-km2 oval area that spanned a horizontal distance of 0.1–2.1 km from the release location (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.14). These predictions agree with reported observations that “essentially all” of the residual petroleum surfaced within a ≤2-km2 area, offset laterally by 0.5–1.5 km from the wellhead, based on atmospheric measurements of hydrocarbons on June 8–10 (3). The predicted dimensions of the surfacing area are controlled by (i) the variation in horizontal transport distances of variable-size fluid particles having varying ascent speeds in the presence of ambient sea currents and (ii) turbulent horizontal dispersion of ascending fluid particles (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.14).

Composition of the Deep-Sea Intrusion: Dissolved Hydrocarbons, Petroleum Liquid Microdroplets, and Dioctyl Sodium Sulfosuccinate.

Aqueous dissolution processes rapidly removed readily soluble compounds from the released petroleum liquid and gas and introduced these compounds into the deep-water intrusion at 900- to 1,300-m depth. For June 8, our model simulations predict that >99%, 98%, and 92% of the released C1, C2, and benzene, respectively, became entrapped in the deep-water intrusion at 900- to 1,300-m depth (SI Appendix, Table S3). We infer that 80% of the injected dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS), which is a component of the dispersant (Corexit EC9500A) injected at the wellhead, also became retained in the intrusion (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.16). Reported water column observations collected in June 2010 confirm that these compounds were predominantly retained in the deep sea (2, 5, 17).
By comparison, aqueous dissolution led to the partial transfers of semisoluble petroleum compounds into the intrusion. The “fingerprint” of aqueous dissolution can be discerned from the observed abundances of individual petroleum compounds in the intrusion, relative to the abundance of a readily soluble reference component (here, C1 or benzene), divided by the same mass ratio in the reservoir fluid (SI Appendix, SI Text, Eqs. S8–S10). The result is a “fractionation index” that can range in value from 0 (no dissolution) to 1 (near-complete dissolution) for each compound. Our model predicts fractionation index values that agree with observations reported at 900- to 1,300-m depth within a 1- to 10-km radius of the wellhead (June 4–July 15, 2010) for three readily soluble compounds (C2, C3, and DOSS) and for 12 semisoluble compounds (small hydrocarbons ranging from toluene to C2-naphthalenes; Fig. 3 A and B and SI Appendix, Table S4 and SI Text, S-1.9). We further conclude that all readily soluble and semisoluble compounds (up to C2-naphthalenes) are predominantly in the aqueously dissolved state in the deep-water intrusion, based on a detailed equilibrium partitioning analysis of water column sample data and also based on simulated dissolution kinetics for suspended ≤130-μm liquid microdroplets entrapped in the intrusion (SI Appendix, Table S5 and SI Text, S-1.10). These validations of the model with field data support our apportionment of dissolved compounds to the deep-water intrusion for the period after the riser pipe was cut (Fig. 5).
However, the model systematically underpredicts the slight but unmistakable presence of 16 sparingly soluble compounds that exhibited observed fractionation index values of 0.007–0.021 relative to benzene (phenanthrene through pristane, Fig. 3B), based on available water column data from the deep-water intrusion after the riser pipe was cut (June 4–July 15). We interpret this discrepancy as a contribution from stable liquid microdroplets that is underestimated by our modeling approach. Such microdroplets may have formed through tip streaming in the turbulent conditions created by the jet of petroleum fluids at the wellhead, further facilitated by dispersant injection (18). This interpretation is consistent with reported in situ holographic camera observations of oil droplets having 30–400-μm diameter within the deep-water intrusion at distances of 1–9 km from the wellhead during June 14–20 (19). According to our simulations, a microdroplet with an initial diameter of ≤130 μm would experience sufficiently slow buoyant ascent to remain entrapped in the intrusion (>900-m depth) within a 1- to 10-km range of the wellhead. Based on the discrepancy between modeled and observed fractionation of petroleum compounds in the deep-water intrusion, we estimate that 1.2% (or 0.6–2.0%) of the mass flow rate of sparingly soluble and insoluble material from the wellhead led to microdroplets observed in the intrusion after the riser was cut (equivalent to 0.8%, or 0.4–1.3%, of the total mass of released petroleum fluids) (Figs. 3B and 5, and SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.9 and S-1.11). This estimate differs from a previous estimate of 5–25% of the released insoluble material becoming entrapped as a liquid phase in the intrusion, which was based on fractionation data for long-chain alkanes collected in the deep water column before the riser pipe was cut (May 27–June 2) (3). Based on our results from simulations and water column data collected after the riser was cut, the composition of the deep-water intrusion is ∼97% aqueously dissolved compounds and ∼3% petroleum liquid microdroplets; again, this result differs from the previous estimate of 69% dissolved, 31% liquid, based on data collected before the riser cut (3). These discrepancies suggest that paring the riser pipe decreased the flow of liquid petroleum compounds into the deep-sea intrusion. The outcomes from this technical intervention are relevant for interpreting bioavailability (10), ecological impact (20, 21), and biodegradation (5, 2225) of petroleum compounds, all of which depend upon the droplet sizes, liquid/dissolved distribution, and altered chemical composition of petroleum residues in the deep sea.

Implications for Deposition of Petroleum Residues on the Deep Seafloor.

Recent studies suggest that the deep-sea intrusion may have contributed to the extensive deposition of weathered petroleum residues observed on the seafloor within a 3,200-km2 area near the wellhead (24, 26, 27). Although deposition processes were not included in our simulations, our results confirm the unambiguous presence of ≤130-μm liquid microdroplets in the deep-sea intrusion, which would have contributed to the “bathtub ring” previously observed in sediments where the intrusion impinged on the continental slope at 900- to 1,300-m depth (26). Our simulations further predict rapid dissolution of semisoluble compounds (up to C2-naphthalenes) from suspended ≤130-μm microdroplets in the intrusion (SI Appendix, Table S5 and SI Text, S-1.10), which would explain the finding (24, 27) that petroleum residues deposited on the seafloor were severely depleted of two-ring and three-ring polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
In addition, previous reports have estimated that 1.9–14.8% (24, 26) or 0.5–9.1% (28) of the released insoluble oil mass was deposited on the seafloor largely within 40 km of the wellhead, based on the observed concentrations of recalcitrant compounds such as hopane and n-C38 in seafloor sediments (24, 26). In contrast, our results reveal that only 0.6–2.0% of the insoluble material released from the wellhead was channeled into the deep-sea intrusion, after the riser pipe was pared at the wellhead. Assuming that seafloor residues originated primarily from the deep-sea intrusion (24, 26), this discrepancy is consistent with the likely possibility (discussed above) that the mass flow of liquid petroleum droplets into the deep-sea intrusion was higher before the riser pipe was pared on June 3. Alternatively, the seafloor residues may originate from other sources that supplemented contributions from the intrusion. Our simulated dissolution kinetics predict that 10- to 300-μm microdroplets do not become negatively buoyant during transport up to 30 km downstream from the wellhead. Therefore, additional processes such as biodegradation (22, 23), marine oil snow sedimentation, and flocculent accumulation (MOSSFA) (29, 30) associated with natural particles from riverine inputs and from marine algae, or in situ burning (31) are needed to explain the buoyancy loss that would lead to fallout deposition. TAMOC simulations of near-field processes can provide initial conditions for other models of these phenomena and other processes occurring at the sea surface (32).

Subsea Dispersant Injection Restrains the Arrival of Volatile Organic Compounds at the Sea Surface.

Dispersant injection at the wellhead can partly influence hazardous exposures of response workers to harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at the sea surface, but the benefits of this intervention tool remain debated. In model simulations, subsea dispersant injection lowered the interfacial tensions of the liquid–seawater and gas–seawater interfaces. This produced smaller fluid particles near the pared wellhead, decreasing d50 by factors of 3.2 and 3.4 for droplets and bubbles, respectively, according to VDROP-J simulations (Fig. 4). Dispersant injection thus increased the surface-to-volume ratios of droplets and bubbles by approximately three times, which accelerated dissolution kinetics. With dispersant injection, ascending fluids are predicted to arrive at the sea surface within 4.6–10 h (for the middle 80% of the surfacing mass), compared with predicted ascent times of only 2–4 h without dispersant (Fig. 2). This prediction agrees with available field observations before the riser pipe was cut (3), which suggest that petroleum liquid surfaced ∼3 h after release without dispersant injection. Dispersant injection therefore lengthened the available time for dissolution processes to act and also increased the rates of dissolution, both of which increased the overall extent of dissolution of petroleum fluids.
Due to these mechanisms, the 49 tons of dispersant injected at the wellhead on June 8 increased the aqueous dissolution of petroleum compounds by 25% or 430 tons, based on comparisons of model simulations with and without dispersant injection (Fig. 5). As a consequence, dispersant injection increased the flow rates of water-soluble compounds into the biologically sparse deep sea (Figs. 1 and 5 and SI Appendix, Table S3). Accordingly, dispersants lowered the flow rates of these harmful compounds into biologically rich surface waters, where population densities of sensitive early life-stage biota are much higher than in deep water (20).
Readily soluble and semisoluble hydrocarbons also represent many of the VOCs in the reservoir fluid, where VOCs are approximated here as petroleum compounds in the C1–C9 boiling point range. Our simulated atmospheric emissions of VOCs are consistent with reported atmospheric measurements (3) taken during May 20–23 and June 8, 10, and 15–27 above the disaster site, during which dispersant injection was applied (Fig. 3C). This validation of simulations results with field data supports our apportionments of total petroleum compounds to the sea surface and the water column during the period after the riser pipe was cut (Fig. 5).
Based on model simulations, dispersant injection accelerated deep-sea dissolution processes that affected many volatile compounds, thereby decreasing the mass flow rate of VOCs to the atmosphere by ∼28% (1,000 instead of 1,400 tons of C1–C9 compounds emitted on June 8). Dispersant injection also increased the predicted area where residual fluids reached the sea surface from 0.2 to 1.0 km2. This increase in surface area occurred because dispersant injection decreased the sizes of the ascending droplets, which led to a broader distribution of ascent speeds (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.14), and which displaced the center of mass of petroleum arriving at the sea surface from 230-m to 490-m horizontal distance from the wellhead. Due to these combined effects of dispersant injection, potential inhalation exposures to VOCs were dramatically decreased for response personnel at the sea surface (Figs. 3 C and D and 5). Based on meteorological conditions on June 8, dispersant injection lowered the average total concentration of VOCs from an estimated ∼400 ppm (without dispersant) to ∼70 ppm (with dispersant) at 2-m altitude above sea level inside the respective areas where 98% of the residual fluids were predicted to arrive at the sea surface. BTEX emissions to the atmosphere were disproportionately affected, due to their high aqueous solubilities (Fig. 3 C and D and SI Appendix, Table S3). For example, dispersant injection decreased the predicted mass flow rate of benzene to the atmosphere by 2,000 times, lowering the predicted average benzene concentrations in the atmosphere from ∼1,300 ppb (without dispersant) to ∼0.2 ppb (with dispersant) at 2-m altitude above the surfacing area, during conditions on June 8 (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.15). Dispersant injection also led to smaller petroleum droplets reaching the sea surface (SI Appendix, Fig. S4).
These model predictions corroborate the observation that VOC concentrations in the atmosphere were decreased at the sea surface above the wellhead during subsea dispersant injection and during sea-surface application of dispersant (33). Our predicted atmospheric concentrations for June 8 depend on wind conditions that can vary daily. Nonetheless, our simulation results rationalize the effectiveness of subsea dispersant injection as a response strategy for reduced VOC exposure by response personnel, reduced fire hazard, and reduced disruptions to response work (33). For example, work was stopped on “the small city of vessels” tethered to the wellhead during periods when measured atmospheric concentrations of benzene exceeded 5 ppm (33). Therefore, subsea dispersant injection and dispersant application at the petroleum surfacing location likely favored a more prompt final containment of the uncontrolled release of fluids from the wellhead.

Methods

VDROP-J.

The initial size distributions of droplets and bubbles predicted by VDROP-J are dependent on the size of the wellhead orifice through which petroleum fluids were released, and the flow rates, densities, buoyancies, viscosities, and liquid/water and gas/water interfacial tensions of petroleum fluids under local conditions at the wellhead (14) (SI Appendix, Table S1 and SI Text, S-1.1). The initial size distributions predicted by VDROP-J were used at the petroleum fluids source boundary of TAMOC.

TAMOC.

TAMOC includes a bent plume model that describes both the buoyant rising plume and the descending plume that forms the intrusion (Fig. 1), including the entrainment of ambient seawater (16, 34). Detailed thermodynamic equations of state are applied to simulate oil, gas, and fluid properties under low temperature and extreme pressure (11). Particle fate and transport follows an approach similar to McGinnis et al. (35), and jet and plume behavior follow an integral model approach (3638). Our model extends predicted trap heights based on estimates using simplified assumptions (6), which was an update to the scaling of Asaeda and Imberger (39). The model is unique in its ability to combine the detailed thermodynamic behavior (needed to capture phase equilibria, dissolution, and buoyancy) with the dynamic equations of motion (plume and intrusion formation). The model has been validated to numerous laboratory and field experiments of bubble plumes (e.g., ref. 38). No model parameters were tuned to improve agreement with chemical observations collected in the sea or atmosphere during the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Volatile Organic Compound Concentrations in the Atmosphere.

Atmospheric concentrations of VOCs above the surfacing area were estimated using a superposition of Gaussian plume models, assuming immediate evaporation of all compounds in the C1–C9 boiling point range from residual fluids as they reached the sea surface (SI Appendix, SI Text, S-1.12 and S-1.15).

Data Availability

Data deposition: TAMOC model code, input files, and output files are publicly available through the GoMRI Information and Data Cooperative at https://data.gulfresearchinitiative.org (ezid.cdlib.org/id/doi:10.7266/N7DF6P8R).

Acknowledgments

We thank the late Dr. John Hayes for his advice and encouragement and Thomas B. Ryerson, Richard Camilli, David L. Valentine, Deborah French-McCay, Tim Nedwed, and Chuan-Yuan Hsu for discussions. Research was made possible, in part, by grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem (C-IMAGE), Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics & Plankton Studies (DROPPS II), Deep Sea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico (DEEP-C), and GoMRI request for proposal V (RPV-V). This work is also supported by GoMRI Grant SA 16-30 and National Science Foundation Grants OCE-0960841, RAPID OCE-1043976, CBET-1034112, and EAR-0950600.

Supporting Information

Appendix (PDF)

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Information & Authors

Information

Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 114 | No. 38
September 19, 2017
PubMed: 28847967

Classifications

Data Availability

Data deposition: TAMOC model code, input files, and output files are publicly available through the GoMRI Information and Data Cooperative at https://data.gulfresearchinitiative.org (ezid.cdlib.org/id/doi:10.7266/N7DF6P8R).

Submission history

Published online: August 28, 2017
Published in issue: September 19, 2017

Keywords

  1. Deepwater Horizon
  2. oil spill
  3. petroleum
  4. offshore drilling
  5. dispersant

Acknowledgments

We thank the late Dr. John Hayes for his advice and encouragement and Thomas B. Ryerson, Richard Camilli, David L. Valentine, Deborah French-McCay, Tim Nedwed, and Chuan-Yuan Hsu for discussions. Research was made possible, in part, by grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem (C-IMAGE), Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics & Plankton Studies (DROPPS II), Deep Sea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico (DEEP-C), and GoMRI request for proposal V (RPV-V). This work is also supported by GoMRI Grant SA 16-30 and National Science Foundation Grants OCE-0960841, RAPID OCE-1043976, CBET-1034112, and EAR-0950600.

Notes

This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

Authors

Affiliations

Jonas Gros
School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland;
Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843;
Scott A. Socolofsky1 [email protected]
Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843;
Anusha L. Dissanayake
Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843;
Department of Marine Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602;
Inok Jun
Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843;
Lin Zhao
Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, NJ 07102;
Michel C. Boufadel
Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, NJ 07102;
Christopher M. Reddy
Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA 02543;
J. Samuel Arey1 [email protected]
School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland;
Department of Environmental Chemistry, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, CH-8600 Dübendorf, Switzerland

Notes

1
To whom correspondence may be addressed. Email: [email protected] or [email protected].
Author contributions: J.G., S.A.S., C.M.R., and J.S.A. designed research; J.G., S.A.S., A.L.D., I.J., L.Z., M.C.B., C.M.R., and J.S.A. performed research; J.G., S.A.S., C.M.R., and J.S.A. analyzed data; and J.G., S.A.S., C.M.R., and J.S.A. wrote the paper.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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