Oil Spills: Figuring Out Whodunit

Leaks and spills are a sad reality of the oil business. Tankers and wells often take the blame. But even Mother Nature can contribute--say, when a temblor ruptures an underground seam and crude escapes. Therefore, it's not always easy to assign blame when tar balls wash up on beaches.

Thanks to a novel application of mass spectrometry from BP America Inc., some tar balls can now be tracked to their source. Oil from different regions often has unique characteristics, which show up as ratios between carbon isotopes. So on a mass spectrometer, Alaskan oil will differ from Californian oil. Plotting these ratios is used in oil exploration to help gauge the rock formation from which oil comes. But last year, after the BP-hired tanker American Trader spilled some 400,000 gallons of crude off Huntingon Beach, Calif., the company used spectrometry to show that many tar balls spotted up and down the coast did not come from its cargo. Several labs can perform such analysis, and BP now expects the technique will be used in future spills.

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