It’s, um, not just about the oil.

Raw petroleum is slimy and icky and makes the fish taste funny. It’s pretty bad to have millions of gallons per day just gush up into the ocean and get things all messy and coat the animals and birds. But frankly, the massive petroleum spoogefest is nowhere near the worst part of the ongoing problem.

Poke through the following in approximately this order:

Here’s the upshot.

Where you have oil, you have methane. It’s “natural” gas — a term created by energy industry marketroids to make us feel better about burning it, as opposed to, say, any of a selection of unnatural gases. It’s just a kind of petroleum, which, in turn, is nothing but chains of carbon atoms of various lengths bonded to as much hydrogen as can be made to stick. A “chain” of one carbon atom is methane, two is ethane, three is propane, four is butane — and after that, they tend to be liquids at typical room temperatures and atmospheric pressures, and we start to call them names like pentane, hexane, heptane, octane, etc., all the way up to hydrocarbon sludge. Petroleum distillation is largely just sorting those molecules by length into various buckets.

Methane can be produced as a product or byproduct of metabolic processes and is the major component of a fart. But it’s also one of the substances you get in a post-supernova cooldown, and since hydrogen and carbon are really common elements, you can come by planets with oceans of the stuff. So it’s tough to say whether our petroleum deposits are condensed/compressed interstellar carbon or the result of biological decay, but it’s probably both.

In any case, we keep precious little methane (or ethane, or propane, or butane) in our atmosphere these days — and we like it that way. For the past four billion years we’ve worked hard to process that stuff out of our sky and turn it into water and carbon that we can turn into, well, us.

A bubble of methane in the sky some twenty miles across is just a bomb — but a bomb that is as much of a planet-killer as a hefty asteroid traveling at speed. In fact, the devastation from some of our asteroid strikes may have been assisted by the methane bubbles they shook loose from the ocean the way thumping a glass of something carbonated can make it foam up and overflow the glass.

The water is a mile deep where the Deepwater Horizon well is, but the oil pan from which they were sipping is 2.5 miles below the well-head. I’d dearly love to know what forces could have lifted the sea bed by thirty feet where the well-head is, especially when all of the action is supposed to be 2.5 miles below that. And I’d love to know how concerned we ought to be about that particular pimple popping — what will be released, and what will happen when the seafloor drops back to where it was. Or below.

Tsunamis, earthquakes, the sky on fire, raining carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and various unsavory chemicals — all of these are on the menu. What entree will this crisis pick?


July 11, 2010 · by xalieri · Posted in Everything Else  


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