The Conservation of Oily Matter

You can’t make nothing out of something. That’s what I’m stuck on now that the ruptured Macondo well has been killed. And I don’t mean just that BP along with other oil industrialists would have us believe that the Gulf of Mexico deep sea oil gusher was a fluke that won’t happen again, even as we’re poised to resume deepwater drilling for oil.

I mean the first law of thermodynamics, often called the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy may be transferred, but can’t be created or destroyed.

Even if you’re no Einstein, you’ve probably encountered – perhaps on a T-shirt – Albert’s famous equation that describes the relationship between energy and matter: E = mc2 (where “E” stands for energy and “m” for matter and “c” is a constant – a multiplication factor that doesn’t change). Einstein suggested that energy and matter are interchangeable. In essence, the first law of thermodynamics also implies that matter, like energy, can be neither created nor destroyed. That’s why intro physics students also know this principle as the law of conservation of matter.

In case you were wondering, oil is matter. So, even though I’m generally a glass-half-full kind of person, suspicion wheedled its way through my body when I heard in early August that roughly three-fourths of the oil unleashed from the deep sea well had “disappeared.” The report from scientists at NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in fact stated, “the vast majority of the oil from the BP oil spill has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed” and proclaimed proudly, “a significant amount of this is the direct result of the robust federal response efforts.” Well, bully for them.

I can understand why people who perhaps avoided college physics might interpret “burned,” “skimmed” and “dispersed” as “disappeared.” But here’s the truth of the first law of thermodynamics: since the earth is a closed system, the matter that was once entombed oil is now formerly fossilized fuel released into other parts of the earth system. I can’t help but picture the escaped oil issuing forth from the Gulf of Mexico as cinematographers rendered J.K. Rowling’s hope-sucking dementors.

We see as coatings on beaches and birds the painfully obvious 26 percent of “residual oil.” As for the disappeared 74 percent, on an earth ruled by the first law of thermodynamics, burned, dispersed and skimmed means, respectively, that the oil from the Gulf Gusher resides in the atmosphere helping to warm the planet, lurks as minute particles in seawater that challenge the capacity of fish to extract oxygen from water via gills suited to seawater of specific physical and chemical composition and accumulates as something we could call the dregs of the disaster.