The federal government's National Incident Command has released it's report on the gulf oil spill “BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget: What Happened To the Oil?” The main message of this report – and certainly the main spin it has been given in statements by government spokespeople and the major media is - “it's all but over, we've accounted for most of the oil, most of it's gone and what's left is disappearing fast”.
But the report's conclusions are at best premature, based in many respects on guesswork, and evidence that didn't fit its conclusions was suppressed. The conclusions drawn from the report and being pushed out broadly to the public are wrong. Leaving aside the dangerous implications this report may lead to in terms of governmental policy, this report is itself an attack on and abuse of science.
Here is the report's key summary finding:
“In summary, it is estimated that burning, skimming and direct recovery from the wellhead removed one quarter (25%) of the oil released from the wellhead. One quarter (25%) of the total oil naturally evaporated or dissolved, and just less than one quarter (24%) was dispersed (either naturally or as a result of operations) as microscopic droplets into Gulf waters. The residual amount — just over one quarter (26%) — is either on or just below the surface as light sheen and weathered tar balls, has washed ashore or been collected from the shore, or is buried in sand and sediments. Oil in the residual and dispersed categories is in the process of being degraded.”
There is so much wrong with this report and how it is being used that it would take pages to describe. A New York Times article from August 4 describes some initial response from scientists who have done research in the gulf for years:
“Some researchers have already attacked the findings and methodology, calling the report conclusions premature at best and its methodology sloppy. They noted that considerable research was still under way to shed light on some of the main scientific issues raised in the report.
“'A lot of this is based on modeling and extrapolation and very generous assumptions,' said Samantha Joye, a marine scientist at the University of Georgia who has led some of the most important research on the Deepwater Horizon spill. 'If an academic scientist put something like this out there, it would get torpedoed into a billion pieces.' ”
There is nothing wrong with modeling per se but there is something very wrong about modeling using wild guesses for inputs and using that to draw premature unfounded conclusions.
Even Edward Overton, an emeritus LSU gulf researcher who is listed as one of the scientists consulted in preparation of the report, while generally supporting the report, was reported to have “expressed concern, however, that dispersed oil in the deep ocean might not break down quickly.”
For weeks after the Deepwater Horizon accident both BP and NOAA director Jane Lubchenco, echoing BP's CEO, denied that there were any oil plumes beneath the surface. When researchers reported clear evidence of the massive plumes, she called their findings only “anomalies” that might or might not be oil which might or might not be from the BP disaster. Only later on June 8, in the face of overwhelming evidence, Lubchenco reversed her stance conceding “The bottom line is that yes, there is oil in the water column, it’s at very low concentrations...” (Lubchenco joint press conference with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, June 8, 2010) partial timeline of NOAA stonewalling on undersea plumes...
The report continues to seriously downplay both the existence of the underwater plumes and the continued dangers posed by their aftermath, stating only:
“All of the naturally dispersed oil and some of the oil that was chemically dispersed remained well-below the surface in diffuse clouds where it began to dissipate further and biodegrade. Previous analyses have shown evidence of diffuse clouds of dispersed oil between 3,300 and 4,300 feet in very low concentrations (parts per million or less), moving in the direction of known ocean currents and decreasing with distance from the wellhead.”
And in the report's description of the 26% of the oil not yet accounted for, the deepwater plumes are omitted. Here is the description:
“Residual: After accounting for the categories that can be measured directly or estimated (i.e., recovery operations, dispersion, and evaporation and dissolution), an estimated 26% remains. This figure is a combination of categories all of which are difficult to measure or estimate. It includes oil still on or just below the surface in the form of light sheen or tar balls, oil that has washed ashore or been collected from the shore, and some that is buried in sand and sediments and may resurface through time. This oil has also begun to degrade through natural processes.”
The federal report tries to whitewash and downplay this critical issue too. Here is what it says:
“Our knowledge of the oil, dispersants, ecosystem impacts and human impacts will continue to evolve.” (duh!).
“EPA and NOAA have carefully monitored BP's use of dispersant”. But evidence is emerging that they did nothing of the sort, ultimately allowing at least 2 million gallons of this highly toxic chemical to be used.
Ron Kendall, a toxicologist from Texas Tech was reported to have testified to congress that "The bottom line is that a lot of oil is still at sea dispersed in the water column," said Ron Kendall. "It's a big ecological question as to how this will ultimately unfold." Previous studies, including a 400-page study by the National Academy of Sciences, have warned that the combination of oil and dispersants is more toxic than oil on its own, because the chemicals break down cell walls, making organisms more susceptible to oil. from Guardian UK August 3, 2010...
NY Times: “U.S. Finds Most Oil From Spill Poses Little Additional Risk”
CNN: “Battle to stop leak and contain oil 'coming to an end,' Obama says” and “The report bolsters a top Obama administration energy official's statement Wednesday that the oil spill crisis is 'turning a corner,' with the 'vast majority' of the oil now gone and the procedure to permanently seal BP's crippled well apparently working.”
We close with two points:
First: even if you take the new government figures for real (which we don't, by a long shot), there is still way more oil in the gulf now (after over 100 days of oil in the Gulf) than there was in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill - and that spill basically caused major portions of the ecosystem to collapse, in some cases years later. It's true that this disaster is different from the Exxon Valdez spill in many ways. But the key point is that what is needed urgently is fully transparent release of all findings (including from BP and all government agencies) and much more research, not rosy reports that obscure the truth.
And finally: a much more scientific assessment of where things stand with the gulf oil spill, this from University of Georgia investigator Samantha Joye. She has spent more than 15 years doing research in the gulf with her team and they were among those who found and measured the massive undersea oil plumes:
“I read many reports that stated conclusively the oil had been either transferred to the atmosphere (via evaporation) or that it had been consumed by oil-eating microorganisms. Everyone’s reaction was, not surprisingly, ‘what a relief !!’.
“Should we be relieved? Is this disaster over?
“On the whole, I believe the answer to both questions is no. It is a relief that the volume of surface oil is reduced, as this lowers the probability of oil-fouling of coastal beaches and marshes. However, it’s likely that a great deal of oil is still out there in the Gulf of Mexico’s waters, it’s just no longer visible to us.
“While some of the oil has most certainly evaporated, much of it was dispersed and this oil is still floating around, invisible to our eyes, within the ocean’s water column. Some of the oil has probably sedimented to the seafloor, where it is also invisible to our eyes. The fact that this oil is “invisible” makes it no less of a danger to the Gulf’s fragile ecosystems. Quite the contrary, the danger is real and the danger is much more difficult to quantify, track and assess.
“And, what about the dissolved gases, mainly methane? Very few measurements of methane concentrations have been made and very few people are thinking about methane’s potential impacts on Gulf deep waters. We, and a couple of others, have measured remarkably high methane concentrations in the water column. Its oxidation, and the microbial growth it fuels, will influence oxygen and nutrient budgets in the deepwater.
“What about the dispersants? Where have they gone and what is their impact in the system? How are dispersants influencing the organisms that call the Gulf’s waters, beaches and marshes home? We do not know the answers to these questions but we need to know.” Gulf Oil Blog Samantha Joye / UGA Department of Marine Science...
Read the entire federal report here...
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In the United States today science, as science, is under attack as never before, mostly from uninformed evangelical organizations. Defend Science is an activist group to defend against illogical suppression of scientific research.
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This story was published on September 16, 2010.