Summary of Contemporary Research on the Use of Chemical Dispersants for Deep-Sea Oil Spills

  • Steven A. MurawskiEmail author
  • Michael Schlüter
  • Claire B. Paris
  • Zachary M. Aman


Mitigation options for deep-sea oil spills are indeed few. In the open ocean, far from land, booming, burning, and mechanical pickup of oil at the sea surface may be of limited value due to wave and wind conditions. The use of chemicals to disperse oil into smaller droplets is predicated on the assumptions that smaller droplets are more easily dissolved into surrounding waters and that smaller droplets are degraded by bacterial action more rapidly than are larger droplets. During the Deepwater Horizon accident, a novel use of dispersants injected directly into the subsurface source of the blowout was undertaken to treat the oil prior to surfacing. The presence of subsurface “plumes” of small droplets and dissolved oil observed during DWH raised the issue of active measures to sequester oil in the subsurface vs. allowing it to surface. Reducing the concentration of volatile organic compounds surfacing near workers was also a stated objective of subsurface dispersant injection (SSDI) application. Aquatic toxicity testing has evolved significantly from a sole focus on short-term mortality to evaluate a variety of sublethal physiological, genotoxic, and immunogenic impacts affecting animal health and fitness of exposed populations. In this chapter we consider a number of pressing – and heretofore unresolved – issues surrounding the use of dispersants as an oil spill mitigation tool. Further, we advocate continued, targeted research to help resolve ongoing controversies regarding dispersant use.


Oil dispersants Oil droplets Oil toxicity Trade-off analyses Subsurface dispersant injection (SSDI) Deep-sea blowout 



This research was made possible by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative/C-IMAGE I, II and III.


  1. Aliseda A, Bommer P, Espina P, Flores O, Lasheras JC, Lehr B, Leifer I, Possolo A, Riley J, Savas O, Shaffer F, Wereley S, Yapa P (2010) Deepwater Horizon release estimate of rate by PIV. Report to the Flow Rate Technical Group. Available at:
  2. Aman Z, Paris CB, May EF, Johns ML, Lindo-Atichati D (2015) High-pressure visual experimental studies of oil-in-water dispersion droplet size: implication for oil transport. Chem Eng Sci 127:392–400CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aurand D, Walko L, Pond (2000) Developing consensus ecological risk assessments: environmental protection in oil spill response planning a guidebook. United States Coast Guard, Washington, D.C, p 148Google Scholar
  4. Barron M, Chiasson S, Bejarano A (2020) Ecotoxicology of deep ocean spills (Chap. 27). In: Murawski SA, Ainsworth C, Gilbert S, Hollander D, Paris CB, Schlüter M, Wetzel D (eds) Deep oil spills: facts, fate and effects. Springer, ChamGoogle Scholar
  5. Bejarano AC, Levine E, Mearns A (2013) Effectiveness and potential ecological effects of offshore surface dispersant use during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: a retrospective analysis of monitoring data. Environ Monit Assess 185:10281–10,295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bejarano AC, Clark JR, Coelho JM (2014) Issues and challenges with oil toxicity data and implications for their use in decision making: a quantitative review. Environ Toxicol Chem 33:732–742CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bejarano AC, Farr JK, Jenne P, Chu V, Hielscher A (2016) The Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects database (CAFE), a tool that supports assessments of chemical spills in aquatic environments. Environ Toxicol Chem 35:1576–1586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Berenshtein I, Perlin N, Ainsworth C, Ortega-Ortiz J, Vaz AC, Paris CB (2020) Comparisons of the spatial extent, impacts to shorelines and ecosystem, and 4-dimensional characteristics of simulated oil Spills (Chap. 20). In: Murawski SA, Ainsworth C, Gilbert S, Hollander D, Paris CB, Schlüter M, Wetzel D (eds) Scenarios and responses to future Deep Oil Spills – fighting the next war. Springer, ChamGoogle Scholar
  9. Bock M, Robinson H, Wenning R, French-McCay D, Rowe J, Hayward Walker A (2018) Comparative risk assessment of oil spill response options for a deepwater oil well blowout: Part II. Relative risk methodology. Mar Pollut Bull 133:984–1000CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bookstaver M, Bose A, Tripathi A (2015) Interaction of Alcanivorax borkumensis with a surfactant decorated oil-water interface. Langmuir 31:5875–5881CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Boufadel MC, Gao F, Zhao L, Özgökmen T, Miller R, King T, Robinson B, Lee K, Leifer I (2018) Was the Deepwater Horizon well discharge churn flow? Implications on the estimation of the oil discharge and droplet size distribution. Geophys Res Lett 45. Scholar
  12. Brandvik PJ, Johansen Ø, Leirvik F, Farooq U, Daling PS (2013) Droplet breakup in subsurface oil releases—Part 1: experimental study of droplet breakup and effectiveness of dispersant injection. Mar Pollut Bull 73:319–326. Scholar
  13. Cai Z, Gong Y, Liu W, Fu J, O’Reilly SE, Hao X, Zhao D (2016) A surface tension based method for measuring oil dispersant concentration in seawater. Mar Pollut Bull 109:49–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Camilli R, Reddy CM, Yoerger DR, Van Mooy BAS, Jakuba MV, Kinsey JC, McIntyre CP, Sylva SP, Maloney JV (2010) Tracking hydrocarbon plume transport and bio-degradation at Deepwater Horizon. Science 330:201–204. Scholar
  15. Coastal Response Research Center (2010) Deepwater Horizon dispersant use meeting report, May 26–27, 2010, revision 3. University of New Hampshire, available at:
  16. Crowley D, French-McCay D, Santos L, Chowdhury B, Markussen R (2018) Modeling atmospheric volatile organic compound concentrations resulting from a deepwater oil well blowout – mitigation by subsea dispersant injection. Mar Pollut Bull 136:152–163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Daling PS, Brakstad OG, Brandvik PJ, Davies E, Grøsvik BE, Meier S, Nepstad R, Nordtug T, Vikebø F (2017) SubSea Dispersant Injection (SSDI) – a “state of the art” and the need for further documentations. Norwegian Institute of Marine Research report 2017:00007 A.
  18. Data1, BGS (2016) Chemical analysis of oil samples from the Gulf of Mexico and adjoining states from May 2010 to March 2014. Filename: WaterChemistry_W-01v02-01_xTab.
  19. Data2, BGS (2016) Subsea dispersant application records collected during the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) accident near the Mississippi Canyon block 252 wellhead from April 30 to July 22, 2010 Filename: DispersantApplication_OTH-02v01-01.
  20. Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustees (2016) Deepwater Horizon oil spill: final programmatic damage assessment and restoration plan and final programmatic environmental impact statement. Retrieved from
  21. DeGouw JA, Middlebrook AM, Warneke C, Ahmadov R, Atlas EL, Bahreini R, Blake DR, Brock CA, Brioude J, Fahey DW, Fehsenfeld FC, Holloway JS, Le Henaff M, Lueb RA, McKeen SA, Meagher JF, Murphy MD, Paris CB, Parrish DD, Perring AE, Pollack IB, Ravishankara AR, Robinson AL, Ryerson TB, Schwarz JP, Spackman JR, Srinivasan A, Watts LA (2011) Organic aerosol formation downwind from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Science 331:1295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. DeLeo DM, Ruiz-Ramos DV, Baums LB, Cordes EE (2016) Response of deep-water corals to oil and chemical dispersant exposure. Deep Sea Res II Top Stud Oceanogr 129:137–147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. DeMicco E, Schuler PA, Omer T, Baca B (2011) Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA) of dispersed oil on near shore tropical ecosystems: tropics–the 25th year research visit. In: International Oil Spill Conference Proceedings (IOSC), American Petroleum Institute. abs282Google Scholar
  24. Di Toro DM, McGrath JA (2000) Technical basis for narcotic chemicals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon criteria. II. Mixtures and sediments. Environ Toxicol Chem 19:1971–1982CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Diercks A-R, Highsmith RC, Asper VL, Joung D, Zhou Z, Guo L, Shiller AM, Joye SB, Teske AP, Guinasso N, Wade TL, Lohrenz SE (2010) Characterization of subsurface polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at the Deepwater Horizon site. Geophys Res Lett 37:L20602. Scholar
  26. Farn RJ (1976) Sinking and dispersing oil (Chap. 8). In: Wardley-Smith J (ed) The control of oil pollution. Graham and Trotman, LondonGoogle Scholar
  27. French-McCay D, Crowley D, Rowe JJ, Bock M, Robinson H, Wenning R, Hayward Walker Joeckel AJ, Nedwed TJ, Parkerton TF (2018) Comparative risk assessment of spill response options for a deepwater oil well blowout: Part 1. Oil spill modeling. Mar Pollut Bull 133:1001–1015CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Frometa J, DeLorenzo ME, Pisarski EC, Etnoyer PJ (2017) Toxicity of oil and dispersant on the deep water gorgonian octocoral Swiftia exserta, with implications for the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Mar Pollut Bull 122:91–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Goodbody-Gringley G, Wetzel DL, Gillon D, Pulster E, Miller A, Ritchie KB (2013) Toxicity of Deepwater Horizon source oil and the chemical dispersant, Corexit® 9500, to coral larvae. PLoS One 8(1):e45574. Scholar
  30. Gros J, Socolofsky SA, Dissanayake AL, Jun I, Zhao L, Boufadel MC, Reddy CM, Areya JS (2017) Petroleum dynamics in the sea and influence of subsea dispersant injection during Deepwater Horizon. Proc Natl Acad Sci 114:10065–10,070CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Grosell M, Griffitt RJ, Sherwood TA, Wetzel D (2019) Digging deeper than LC/EC50: non-traditional endpoints and non-model species in oil spill toxicology (Chap. 29). In: Murawski SA, Ainsworth C, Gilbert S, Hollander D, Paris CB, Schlüter M, Wetzel D (eds) Deep oil spills: facts, fate and effects. Springer, ChamGoogle Scholar
  32. Hemmer MJ, Barron MG, Greene R (2011) Comparative toxicity of eight oil dispersants, Louisiana sweet crude oil (LSC) and chemically dispersed LSC to two aquatic test species. Environ Toxicol Chem 30:2244–2252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Incardona JP, Swarts TL, Edmunds RC, Linbo TL, Aquilina-Beck A, Sloan CA, Gardner LD, Block BA, Scholz NL (2013) Exxon Valdez to Deepwater Horizon: comparable toxicity of both crude oils to fish early life stages. Aquat Toxicol 142:303–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jernelöv A, Lindén O (1981) Ixtoc 1: a case study of the world’s largest oil spill. Ambio 10:299–306Google Scholar
  35. Johansen Ø, Rye H (2003) Deepspill––field study of a simulated oil and gas blowout in deep water. Spill Sci Technol Bull 8:433–443CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kleindienst SK, Paul JH, Joye SB (2015a) Assessing the impacts of chemical dispersants on microbial community composition and activity. Nat Rev Microbiol 13:388–396. Scholar
  37. Kleindienst S, Seidel M, Ziervogel M, Grim K, Mailkin S, Harrison S, Loftis KM, Perkins MJ, Field JA, Sogin M, Dittmar T, Passow U, Medeiros PM, Joye SB (2015b) Chemical dispersants can suppress the activity of natural oil-degrading microorganisms. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 48:14900–14,905CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kujawinski EB, Kido Soule MC, Valentine DL, Boysen AK, Longnecker K, Redmond MC (2011) Fate of dispersants associated with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Environ Sci Technol 45:1298–1306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Li Z, Lee K, King T, Boufadel M (2008) Oil droplet size distribution as a function of energy dissipation rate in an experimental wave tank. In: Proceedings of the international oil spill conference, pp 621–626Google Scholar
  40. Linton T, Koons CB (1983) Oil dispersant field evaluation Ixtoc 1 Blowout, Bay of Campeche, Mexico. Oil Petrochem Pollut 1:183–188CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Malone K, Pesch S, Schlüter M, Krause D (2018) Oil droplet size distributions in deep-sea blowouts: Influence of pressure and dissolved gases. Environ Sci Technol 52:6326–6333. Scholar
  42. Malone K, Aman ZM, Pesch S, Schlüter M, Krause D (2020) Jet formation at the spill site and resulting droplet size distributions (Chap. 4). In: Murawski SA, Ainsworth C, Gilbert S, Hollander D, Paris CB, Schlüter M, Wetzel D (eds) Deep oil spills: facts, fate and effects. Springer, ChamGoogle Scholar
  43. Masutani SM, Adams EE (2000) Experimental study of multi- phase plumes with application to deep ocean oil spills. TA&R Proj. 377, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Washington, DC. Available at
  44. McNutt MK, Camilli R, Crone TJ, Guthrie GD, Hsieh PA, Ryerson TB, Savas O, Shaffer F (2011) Review of flow rate estimates of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Proc Natl Acad Sci 109.
  45. Mitchelmore C, Bejarano A, Wetzel D (2020) A synthesis of Deepwater Horizon oil and dispersant aquatic standard laboratory acute and chronic toxicity studies (Chap. 28). In: Murawski SA, Ainsworth C, Gilbert S, Hollander D, Paris CB, Schlüter M, Wetzel D (eds) Deep oil spills: facts, fate and effects. Springer, ChamGoogle Scholar
  46. Murawski SA (2020) Perspectives on research, technology, policy and human resources for improved management of ultra-deep oil and gas resources and responses to oil spills (Chap. 29). In: Murawski SA, Ainsworth C, Gilbert S, Hollander D, Paris CB, Schlüter M, Wetzel D (eds) Scenarios and responses to future deep oil spills – fighting the next war. Springer, ChamGoogle Scholar
  47. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) (2019) Report of the committee on evaluation of the use of chemical dispersants in oil spill response. National Academies Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  48. National Research Council (NRC) (1989) Using oil spill dispersants on the sea. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 352 ppGoogle Scholar
  49. National Research Council (NRC) (2005) Oil spill dispersants: efficacy and effects. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 377 ppGoogle Scholar
  50. Nedwed T (2017) Overview of the American Petroleum Institute (API) joint industry task force subsea dispersant injection project. Int Oil Spill Conf Proc 2017:678–703CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Orbesen ES, Snodgrass D, Shideler GS, Brown CA, Walter JF (2017) Diurnal patterns in Gulf of Mexico epipelagic predator interactions with pelagic longline gear: implications for target species catch rates and bycatch mitigation. Bull Mar Sci 93. Scholar
  52. Paris CB, Le Hénaff M, Aman ZM, Subramanian A, Helgers J, Wang D-P, Kourafalou VH, Srinivasan A (2012) Evolution of the Macondo well blowout: simulating the effects of the circulation and synthetic dispersants on the subsea oil transport. Environ Sci Technol 46:13293–13302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Paris CB, Berenshtein I, Trillo ML, Faillettaz R, Olascoaga MJ, Aman ZM, Schlüter M, Joye SB (2018) BP Gulf Science Data reveals ineffectual sub-sea dispersant injection for the Macondo blowout. Front Mar Sci 5(389).
  54. Pesch S, Jaeger P, Jaggi A, Malone K, Hoffmann M, Krause D, Oldenburg T, Schlüter M (2018) Rise velocity of live-oil droplets in deep-sea oil spills. Environ Eng Sci 35(4):289–299. Scholar
  55. Portnoy D, Fields A, Greer J, Schlenk S (2020) Genetics and oil: transcriptomics, epigenetics and genomics as tools to understand animal responses to exposure across different time scales (Chap. 30). In: Murawski SA, Ainsworth C, Gilbert S, Hollander D, Paris CB, Schlüter M, Wetzel D (eds) Deep oil spills: facts, fate and effects. Springer, ChamGoogle Scholar
  56. Redman AD, Parkerton TF (2015) Guidance for improving comparability and relevance of oil toxicity tests. Mar Pollut Bull 98:156–170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Romero IC, Sutton T, Carr B, Quintana-Rizzo E, Ross SW, Hollander DJ, Torres JJ (2018) Decadal assessment of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in mesopelagic fishes from the Gulf of Mexico reveals exposure to oil-derived sources. Environ Sci Technol (online). Scholar
  58. Ryerson TB, Camilli R, Kessler JD, Kujawinski EB, Reddy CM, Valentine DL, Atlas E, Blake DR, de Gouw MS, Parrish DD, Peischla J, Seewald JS, Warneke C (2012) Chemical data quantify Deepwater Horizon hydrocarbon flow rate and environmental distribution. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109:20246–20253CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Smith JE (1968) Torrey Canyon pollution and marine life. Cambridge University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  60. Socolofsky SA, Adams EE, Boufadel MC, Aman ZM, Johansen Ø, Konkel WJ, Lindo D, Madsen MN, North EW, Paris CB, Rasmussen D, Reed M, Rønningen P, Sim LH, Uhrenholdt T, Anderson KG, Cooper C, Nedwed TJ (2015) Intercomparison of oil spill prediction models for accidental blowout scenarios with and without subsea chemical dispersant injection. Mar Pollut Bull 96:110–126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Spaulding M, Lib Z, Mendelsohn D, Crowley D, French-McCay D, Bird A (2017) Application of an integrated blowout model system, OILMAP DEEP, to the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) spill. Mar Pollut Bull 120:37–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Vosyliene MZ, Kazlauskiene N, Joksas K (2005) Toxic effects of crude oil combined with oil cleaner simple green on yolk-sac larvae and adult rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int 12:136–139CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Werely S (2011) Gulf oil spill Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) In: McNutt M, Camilli R, Guthrie G, et al (eds) Plume Calculation Team, PIV Report. Assessment of flow rate estimates for the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo Well oil spill. Flow Rate Technical Group report to the National Incident Command, Interagency Solutions Group, March 10, 2011:
  64. White HK, Lyons SL, Harrison SJ, Findley DM, Liu Y, Kujawinski EB (2014) Long-term persistence of dispersants following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Environ Sci Technol Lett 1:295–299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Whitehead A, Dubansky B, Bodinier C, Garcia TI, Miles S, Pilley C, Raghunathan V, Roach JL, Walker N, Walter RB, Rice CD, Galvez F (2011) Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109:20298–20302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. (2018) BP’s riser Gulf oil spill plume disaster, the other Deepwater Horizon gusher.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven A. Murawski
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michael Schlüter
    • 2
  • Claire B. Paris
    • 3
  • Zachary M. Aman
    • 4
  1. 1.University of South Florida, College of Marine ScienceSt. PetersburgUSA
  2. 2.Hamburg University of TechnologyHamburgGermany
  3. 3.University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric ScienceMiamiUSA
  4. 4.University of Western Australia (M050)CrawleyAustralia

Personalised recommendations