Could the Oil Leak Stop on Its Own, and When?

At least 5,000 barrels of oil are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico every day, with at least 50 million barrels present in the reservoir. At this rate, the reservoir may take 27 years to empty out on its own, according to BP chief executive Tony Hayward.

Since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig sank about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Venice, Louisiana, nearly four weeks ago, the broken pipe has been steadily leaking 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day into the Gulf of Mexico, according to BP, although some experts say the rate of the leak is much higher.

While seafloor oil leaks can occur naturally, especially in areas lying over fault lines, the amount of oil leaked is never this massive and environmentally damaging, according to Christopher Reddy, a scientist in the department of marine chemistry and geochemistry at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The first attempts to stop the leak were unsuccessful and included the blowout preventer's hydraulic cutoff valves, 12 Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) that attempted to repair the blowout preventer, and a 98-ton containment dome.

Then, BP officials contemplated creating a smaller dome, called a junk shot or top hat, by blasting shredded tires, golf balls and other debris into the blowout preventer in an attempt to clog the leak. The most recent effort included using remote submersibles to hook up a mile-long tube to the broken well pipe to siphon some of the leaking oil to a tanker on the surface.

But others are cynical that this will work.

"I'm very skeptical that it could collect most of the oil and gas ... because the connection ... will be leaky under the tremendous pressure that will be present inside the pipe," Steve Wereley, a professor of fluid mechanics at Purdue University, told the press.

BP also began drilling a relief well one week ago, but that will take up to three months to complete.

With BP engineers seemingly resorting to any tactic possible to stop the leak and the list of failures growing, Mother Nature will certainly be left to contend with a great deal of oil. The natural environment can clean up the oil to some extent, but the process is slow, and in the meantime, oil leaks can harm and kill coastal and marine wildlife, pollute the air and water and alter the ecosystem for years to come.

"Oil spills have been occurring in nature for thousands of years," said Reddy. "But natural oil spills release about a pea-sized amount of oil at a time from cracks on the ocean floor."

An oil leak of this caliber would never occur under natural circumstances, and BP has already tried to encourage this natural clean-up method , called bioremediation, by spraying fertilizer over the oil slick area to help the oil-degrading, hydrocarbon-eating bacteria do their job.

While ecosystems have somewhat evolved to accommodate minor, natural oil leaks and several microorganisms do devour oil, it takes the bacteria at least several months to digest the chemicals, and even then, the microbes do not get rid of every drop, according to Reddy.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.