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Petrocarbon evolution: Ramped pyrolysis/oxidation and isotopic studies of contaminated oil sediments from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

By: Kelsey L. Rogers, Samantha H. Bosman, Mary Lardie-Gaylord, Ann McNichol, Brad E. Rosenheim, Joseph P. Montoya, Jeffrey P. Chanton


Hydrocarbons released during the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill weathered due to exposure to oxygen, light, and microbes. During weathering, the hydrocarbons’ reactivity and lability was altered, but it remained identifiable as “petrocarbon” due to its retention of the distinctive isotope signatures (14C and 13C) of petroleum. Relative to the initial estimates of the quantity of oil-residue deposited in Gulf sediments based on 2010–2011 data, the overall coverage and quantity of the fossil carbon on the seafloor has been attenuated. To analyze recovery of oil contaminated deep-sea sediments in the northern Gulf of Mexico we tracked the carbon isotopic composition (13C and 14C, radiocarbon) of bulk sedimentary organic carbon through time at 4 sites. Using ramped pyrolysis/oxidation, we determined the thermochemical stability of sediment organic matter at 5 sites, two of these in time series. There were clear differences between crude oil (which decomposed at a lower temperature during ramped oxidation), natural hydrocarbon seep sediment (decomposing at a higher temperature; Δ14C = -912‰) and our control site (decomposing at a moderate temperature; Δ14C = -189‰), in both the stability (ability to withstand ramped temperatures in oxic conditions) and carbon isotope signatures. We observed recovery toward our control site bulk Δ14C composition at sites further from the wellhead in ~4 years, whereas sites in closer proximity had longer recovery times. The thermographs also indicated temporal changes in the composition of contaminated sediment, with shifts towards higher temperature CO2 evolution over time at a site near the wellhead, and loss of higher temperature CO2 peaks at a more distant site.

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