Looking for the oil? NOAA says it's mostly gone

Aug 04, 2010 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco briefs reporters at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010, regarding the BP oil spill. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(AP) -- With a startling report that some researchers call more spin than science, the government said Wednesday that the mess made by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is mostly gone already.

On the same day they trumpeted success in plugging up the leaking well with drilling mud, federal officials announced that nearly 70 percent of the oil spilled dissolved naturally, or was burned, skimmed, dispersed or captured, with almost nothing left to see - at least on top of the water.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey announced in the five-page report that only 52.7 million gallons of oil are left in the Gulf. That is about 31 percent of the 172 million gallons that spewed into the water from the broken BP well.

Just because the oil is out of sight doesn't mean the Gulf is out of harm's way, federal scientists emphasized. And what's left in the water is still almost five times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

Nevertheless, Wednesday was a day of cautious celebration by a White House that has had little to cheer about from the oil spill.

"I think it is fairly safe to say ... that many of the doomsday scenarios that we talked about and repeated a lot have not and will not come to fruition," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at a briefing with NOAA's top scientist.

Much of the reasoning behind the disappearing oil has to do with the natural resilience of the Gulf, which is teeming with microbes that eat oil. On top of that is the natural tendency of oil in seawater to evaporate and dissolve to half its volume in about a week - something even critics acknowledge.

The federal calculations are based on direct measurements for only 18 million gallons of the oil spilled - the stuff burned and skimmed. The other numbers are "educated scientific guesses," said NOAA emergency response senior scientist Bill Lehr, an author of the report. That is because it is impossible to measure oil that is dispersed, he said.

That's what worries some outside scientists.

"This is a shaky report. The more I read it, the less satisfied I am with the thoroughness of the presentation," Florida State University oceanography professor Ian MacDonald told The Associated Press. "There are sweeping assumptions here."

NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco acknowledged the numbers could be off by as much as 10 percent. One of the scientists who peer-reviewed the work and is mentioned in the report, Ed Overton of Louisiana State University, said he wasn't comfortable with NOAA's putting precise percentages of how much oil is left in the Gulf. What would be more accurate would be a much broader range of, say, 40 million to 60 million gallons, he said.

Still, Overton thought the report was mostly good work. He said the Gulf itself deserves much of the credit, describing the body of water in two words: "incredibly resilient."

The White House claimed only 26 percent of the oil remained in the Gulf, but that was based on a 206-million-gallon figure for the spill that included oil that spewed from the pipe but was captured by BP and never got into the Gulf. Using the 172 million gallons that got into the Gulf, 31 percent of the oil remains.

So what happened to the oil?

Thank nature more than the federal government. Burning, skimming and chemically dispersing the spill got rid of 35 million gallons of oil, while natural processes of dispersion, evaporation and dissolving got rid of 84 million gallons, according to the report.

"Mother Nature is assisting here considerably," Lubchenco said. She cautioned that the oil that's left can harm wildlife for years or even decades to come, saying: "Diluted and out of sight doesn't necessarily mean benign."

Still, outside scientists said this was a just too-simple explanation for a complex oil that has confounded federal scientists at every turn.

"This is just way too neat," said Larry McKinney, director of the Texas A&M University research center on the Gulf of Mexico. "How can you even do this at this point? There's a lot of oil still floating out there."

McKinney said he most worried that this overly optimistic assessment would cost the government - and save BP - billions of dollars in the damage assessment process. McKinney, who has served as a state of Texas trustee in the process, said, "BP attorneys are placing this in plastic and putting this in frames."

White House energy adviser Carol Browner said, "We are going to continue to ensure BP is held accountable for damage they did."

MacDonald said the core of the idea here - that oil in water essentially has about a half-life of a week - makes sense, but what happened from there doesn't.

"There's some science here, but mostly, it's spin," he said. "And it breaks my heart to see them do it."

MacDonald pointed out that NOAA spent weeks sticking with its claim the BP well was spewing only 210,000 gallons a day. Now, after several revisions, the federal government said it really was 2.2 million gallons a day. So he has a hard time believing NOAA this time, he said.

When Lubchenco was asked about that at the Washington news conference, Gibbs stepped in to defend the agency's credibility. Gibbs and Lubchenco said NOAA provided the best information at the time and updated estimates when it had better data and tools.

"Is there uncertainty to this? Of course there is," said NOAA's Lehr. But he said there was no political interference.

That question got raised because of the coordination of the media rollout of the report. Browner was on all four morning TV shows saying "the vast majority of oil is gone," and the report was leaked to The New York Times. The version of the report sent to Congress was created by a former campaign spokesman for President Barack Obama who is now the Commerce Department's public affairs chief.

The scientific report, which has four pages of text followed by one page of credits, is small compared to other similar reports. Initially, NOAA said there was a fuller, 200-page report, but then retracted that. There is a second report that is 10 pages. The initial report cites no scientific references - those, Lehr said, are in his head.

Explore further: Brazil says pace of Amazon deforestation down 18%

More information: http://www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com/posted/2931/Oil-Budget-description-8-3-FINAL.844091.pdf

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User comments : 13

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TopherTO
3.4 / 5 (5) Aug 04, 2010
Doesn't 'chemically dispersed' just mean the oil sunk? Why such a loaded article title? ONLY one quarter left in Gulf. ONLY meaning more than four times the size of Exxon Valdez, as the article noted.

Why wouldn't chemically dispersed oil be counted? Dispersed means neutralized chemically or just no longer in sight of the TV cameras?

Caliban
3 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2010
Doesn't 'chemically dispersed' just mean the oil sunk? Why such a loaded article title? ONLY one quarter left in Gulf. ONLY meaning more than four times the size of Exxon Valdez, as the article noted.

Why wouldn't chemically dispersed oil be counted? Dispersed means neutralized chemically or just no longer in sight of the TV cameras?


Agreed.
And, the 62,000 barrels a day rate is only the "official" estimate, devised, one suspects, to match the observed surface slicks, and not to include the submerged, chemically-dispersed plumes.
Credible sources estimated the gush at better than twice the official figure, and it is still unclear(mainly due to BP/Gov interference) if there are any seafloor leaks occurring in association with the well, as a result of dmage to the bore/well shaft.

For those who haven't seen it yet, here's an eye-opener about Corexit use:

http://www.democr...covering

gunslingor1
5 / 5 (3) Aug 04, 2010
"Report: Only one quarter of oil left in Gulf"
Yeah right!
Just because you cannot see it, doesn't mean it's gone. It's just dispersed and disolved. I would hate to be a filter feeder or an animal with gills now.

All they care about is the visible and acute effects, they care nothing about cumulative or long term effects which are much harder to prove.
Parsec
not rated yet Aug 04, 2010
"Report: Only one quarter of oil left in Gulf"
Yeah right!
Just because you cannot see it, doesn't mean it's gone. It's just dispersed and disolved. I would hate to be a filter feeder or an animal with gills now.

All they care about is the visible and acute effects, they care nothing about cumulative or long term effects which are much harder to prove.

Don't shoot the messenger. This article is reporting what we know and can measure. Knowing for example, that about 1/4 of the oil dissolved, scientists can look at effects related to dissolved oil.

It IS misleading to say that only 1/4 remains. But the bulk of the report is dealing with solid data.
KBK
4 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2010
Corexit dispersant was specifically used and large amounts of , even after being directly told to stop, for a few reasons. The primary one, is that it hides a minimum of 95% of the oil beneath the surface.

Now this oil --- is STILL THERE.

A VERY important point that is not yet covered..is that JUST YESTERDAY and with no reporting yet, the data has shown this incredible thing, that is due to that incredible mass of hidden oil:

THE LOOP CURRENT HAS STALLED.
GulfResearcher
5 / 5 (3) Aug 05, 2010
Yes in fact the plumes are being formed in the subsurface in the manner that I suggested. It is an a form that is concentrated and chemically modified by the subsurface use of the dispersant, but way that is preventing it from dispersing. The problem was the high concentrations of methane interfering with the electrochemical properties of the Corexit. There is so much methane that the sea water has become supersaturated with it even at that depth, temperature and salinity. The plumes are a huge concern and are being studied in depth. For more publicly available info I would suggest following the work of Dr Samantha Joye at the U of G. (see http://gulfblog.uga.edu/ and http://www.youtub...HoHPGtHM )
Dissoved Oxygen levels are crashing in the Gulf water column. Marine Life is fleeing in advance of the plumes.

http://www.amnews...6440.sto

I concur with Dr. Joyes latest assessment of the submerged concentrated plumes of "dispersed oil".
Kedas
not rated yet Aug 05, 2010
Yes the oil is gone! it's on vacation ;-)
Doug_Huffman
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 05, 2010
Occam's Razor suggests that the oil found is consistent with a much smaller release than the hyperbolic and hysterical ruling class (A. Codevilla) would have us believe.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (3) Aug 05, 2010
Just a quick bit of insight.

Oil on the surface of something spreads rather thin and wide. To evidence this spill a little bit of cooking oil on the top of a cup of water, a few drops and watch how far it can slide around.

Now that's pretty close to a 2d representation, however, any "dispersed" oil would be in giant 3d blobs under the surface. These blobs could hold massive amounts of oil and simply take up less visible area.

I don't know how much oil is still in the gulf, or how much was blastiung out of the pipe, but I have a feeling we'll find out the impact of this spill over the next 10 or so years.
eachus
3 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2010
Sigh! What is the difference between the oil spilled by the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the organic debris on the bottom of the Gulf? A few million years. But it will only take a few years until the oil is restored to its previous role as bottom muck. There are lots of teeming biological processes running around trying to extract calories from the oil, the geological processes to put the calories back in are much slower.
zevkirsh
5 / 5 (3) Aug 05, 2010
the one time oil spill is not nearly as destructive as the waste-runoff plastic and sewage that we constantly pour into the gulf, EVERY DAY , EVERY YEAR. the only reason you get a hysterical reaction from the media about the oil spill is because there is a lot of money to be made in advertising, political grandstanding, stock market trading, legalizing and finally, cleaning up the spill----in the whole tragedy of it.

Eric_B
5 / 5 (2) Aug 08, 2010
so, the oil is good for life, easily digestible and the creatures up the food chain that are contaminated with it, you guys will be happy to eat?
Eric_B
5 / 5 (1) Sep 14, 2010
i thought not...

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