In recent years, Hazen, who oversees a sprawling empire of projects as head of the Berkeley Lab’s ecology department, has teamed up with the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) to study microbial-enhanced hydrocarbon recovery. (That association caused some controversy when he reported his Deepwater findings, as the EBI — a partnership between the Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois — is funded by a $500 million, 10-year grant from BP. Hazen notes he was only one of more than 30 authors on the Deepwater report and dismisses any suggestion that he’s somehow beholden to BP or any of the oil companies.) The idea of the hydrocarbon recovery project is to use microbes to extract oil from ground reserves by transforming it into a more liquid form or changing it into hydrogen or methane. If it works, microbes could reduce or even eliminate the environmental damage caused by controversial extraction processes, such as the use of chemicals to fracture underground formations.
Estimates suggest that less than 20 percent of the oil reserves in a typical underground reservoir are currently extracted. Proponents say microbially enhanced recovery could increase that number by 5 to 10 percent. To that end, Hazen has begun projects in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and Colorado, looking in oil reservoirs for microbes that will do the job.
Early in his career, Hazen, who grew up 40 miles from the nearest town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was interested in how microbes survived difficult conditions and caused disease in animals. He investigated the parasite that causes “red sore” disease in fish while earning his doctorate at Wake Forest University. He first began looking at minor oil spills around a tanker loading area at a refinery when he was working as the director of graduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico in the early 1980s. “I was gradually becoming more and more interested not in what microorganisms in the environment could do to you, but what they could do for you,” he says.
“The work does require you know quite a bit about bugs and about the geology and the geochemistry, and to be able to noodle that,” he says. “But [using microbes] is a much better way to handle [cleanup projects]. It will be a lot cheaper in the long run, and you can successfully do less and less aggressive treatment and less engineering as you go along.”
At the Savannah River Site, he oversaw the injection of methane and other nutrients into the ground through horizontal wells as part of a feasibility study to clean up an oil-seepage basin. In just a couple of months, the bugs had cleaned up one of the waste sites and no further action was necessary, he says.
“There’s no compound known to man, man-made or natural, that bacteria can’t degrade.”
Hazen feels the advances of his team — and the effectiveness of the microbes’ work in various applications — prove that we should explore naturally occurring processes before we resort to man-made methods.
“Mother Nature has a tremendous capacity to clean herself,” he says.