17th Sep 2021

BP detergent could pose risk for EU coastlines

  • Oil in Florida: IMF-Geomar scientists said more oil each year enters the North Atlantic due to normal shipping traffic than has so far come from the spill. But the detergent is an unknown factor (Photo: Deepwater Horizon Response)

A leading scientist has warned that the detergent being used by BP to break up oil in the Gulf of Mexico could pose an environmental threat as far afield as the EU, after ocean currents bring residues to Europe next year.

Martin Visbeck, head of the Physical Oceanography unit at the IFM-Geomar institute in Kiel, Germany, told EUobserver on Tuesday (6 July) that the large amount of detergent - most of it a substance called Corexit 9500 - being pumped into the sea poses an unknown environmental risk.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

"That's what we are concerned about. There's a lot of understanding of the oil but not of the detergents. They have never been put into the water in such quantities before," he said.

"BP says they're safe but we're not sure," he added.

"They have been approved by the EPA [the US Environmental Protection Agency] but in these large quantities, we'll know what happens when it happens."

BP has so far put 6,493,526 litres of detergent into the sea according to data from Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, the joint BP-US body set up to handle the oil disaster. A further 47,136 litres is being added daily as of 6 July.

The detergent can cause kidney and liver damage if directly ingested by people.

Preliminary test results on small fish and shrimp released by the EPA on 30 June said it does not display "biologically significant endocrine disrupting activity," referring to the chemical compound's ability to alter hormones in sea life.

The tests were criticised by US environmentalists for failing to study repeated exposure and for not looking at impact on juvenile marine life, however.

The EPA also noted that tests on the effect of Corexit 9500 when mixed with oil have yet to be carried out and that the lifespan of the compound is unknown. "We are currently unaware of published scientific information in the peer-reviewed literature about the biodegradation of the dispersant itself," the body says on its website.

Mr Visbeck's team at IFM-Geomar has since the oil spill in April carried out computer models of how waterborne substances from the Gulf of Mexico end up in Europe.

The oil - which is still leaking at a rate of 35,000 to 65,000 barrels a day - floats through the Florida Strait and accelerates rapidly along the US east coast before slowing and dispersing as it enters the Gulf Stream current, which will bring it, 12 to 18 months later, to Denmark, Ireland and the UK.

Unlike the detergent, Mr Visbeck said dilution of the oil by the time it reaches EU coasts will see it pose no harm. This is the case even if the oil continues to leak for months or years because microbes break it down to harmless levels as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean.

A spokeswoman for the Irish Environmental Protection Agency told this website that: "We would expect some tiny wee tar balls, something negligible."

The European Commission has not yet looked at the potential Gulf Stream effect. But energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger and three other commissioners - on aid, the environment and maritime affairs - are to meet leaders from 18 major oil firms in Brussels on 14 July to ask them if new safety rules are needed.

"We're talking about platforms and how to make them safe," Mr Oettinger's spokeswoman said. "The main aim is to see whether in Europe we have to do something to prevent a similar accident and if an accident happens, what could be done, and if there's damage, who would be liable."

Meanwhile, the oil disaster risks having another effect on the EU - an economic one - amid talk of the potential financial collapse of BP, the EU's fourth largest company according to a ranking by Forbes magazine.

Shares in the battered firm rose on Tuesday due to market chatter that Libya's state oil company and sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Singapore are interested in buying stakes. BP saw its share value almost halved at its lowest point since the disaster, while the cost of the clean-up so far amounts to around around €2.5 billion.

Correction: the story originally attributed a quote on lack of knowledge about the biodegradability of Corexit 9500 to the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command. It came, in fact, from the EPA

Kerry resets climate relations before Glasgow summit

John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy, was in Brussels to discuss how to tackle climate change with the European Commission. His appearance also marked a major shift in relations after the previous US administration under Donald Trump.

Commission: Pioneering Nordics' energy mix 'example' to EU

The Nordic electricity market is an example of successful market integration plus climate action, as the share of sustainable energy keeps growing, the European Commission said. However, the decarbonisation of the transport sector remains a challenge.


How Energy Treaty 'shadow' courts prolong EU's fossil age

The treaty enables companies to claim billions in compensation from states in front of international arbitration tribunals, if they feel unfairly treated by the states' energy or climate policies.


Adriatic Sea 'risks turning into a water desert'

The Adriatic Sea risks turning into a water desert, experts warn. Overfishing, bottom trawling, pollution, and climate change are seriously threatening the biodiversity of the Adriatic.

EU's 2021 fishing quotas to exceed scientific advice

EU minister for fisheries have agreed on fishing opportunities for 2021, with provisional quotas for the fish stocks shared with the UK. However, experts warned that some of these quotas will lead to overfishing "with detrimental effects on fish populations".

News in Brief

  1. Bulgaria's president appoints interim government
  2. Navalny poised to win EU human rights prize
  3. Poland will not leave EU, says Kaczyński
  4. Eurozone wages fall for first time in a decade
  5. Israel joins EU digital Covid-certificate programme
  6. Johnson reshuffles UK cabinet: new foreign minister
  7. Macron says French forces killed Islamic State leader in Sahara
  8. Finance minister tipped to become Sweden's first female PM

EU faces long wait for full vaccine supplies

The EU is still several months away from having enough vaccines to inoculate its 450 million people, with Pfizer and BioNTech, its principle suppliers, aiming for September for delivery targets.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNATO Secretary General guest at the Session of the Nordic Council
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCan you love whoever you want in care homes?
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council enters into formal relations with European Parliament
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen more active in violent extremist circles than first assumed

Latest News

  1. Von der Leyen issues rallying cry for more EU sovereignty
  2. Von der Leyen doubles up on vaccine-donation pledge
  3. Why won't EU forces fight together, von der Leyen asks?
  4. EU pitches infrastructure investment plan to rival China
  5. EU diplomats oppose common forest-monitoring rules
  6. EU 'stands by Afghans' but wants most kept away
  7. Russia's biggest enemy? Its own economy
  8. Textbook hypocrisy: EU's new low point on Palestine

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us