Something that may go on to become one of the more regrettable moves that the Obama Administration has made comes out of the absolute rush to bury the negative story that has become the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from the second that the cap of the spill held straight on through this day and beyond. The trumpeting has been loud and clear:
The White House announced Wednesday that a “vast majority” of the oil in the Gulf has dissipated or been collected, following the plugging of the BP Deepwater Horizon well — but environmental groups are skeptical.
As officials were monitoring a thus-far successful “static kill” of the undersea wellhead, the administration responded, ironically enough, with a leak to The New York Times: a new government analysis claiming that only 26 percent of the estimated 4.9 million-barrel spill still remains intact in the Gulf of Mexico.
The chorus from rational thinkers: Where did the oil go?
So far, the Deepwater Horizon disaster seems to be following the legacy of another greatly famous spill, 1989′s Exxon Valdez disaster. In the aftermath of that spill, 70% of the oil was broken down by natural forces (50% biodegrading, 20% evaporation). The remaining 30% made for one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. 14% of the grand total from the Exxon Valdez was actually recovered. More than 15% remains out there to this day. A similar extrapolation for the Deepwater Horizon means that there will be oil out there on the Gulf shores through the start of the 2030s decade.
The extraordinary usage of oil dispersant is what makes things seem better:
According to David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the administration is using the report to suggest that “the worst is over.” The truth, Pettit says, is that about a quarter of the oil has dispersed — meaning it still exists, but in microscopic particles in the ocean — and another 26 percent of the oil is still unaccounted for.
The dispersant has done its job – breaking the huge puddles of oil into small droplets which don’t show up on our TV screens as ugly masses that show the true scope and size of the disaster. The result? The Obama Administration is allowed to deflect and move away from this as far and as quick as possible.
Side effect: with the oil well capped and the large masses of oil broken up, an adequate estimate of just how much oil spilled – which would determine the amount of BP’s fine – can go in no way other than one to benefit BP:
The blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico gushed 12 times faster than the government and BP estimated in the early weeks of the crisis and has spilled a whopping 4.9 million barrels, or 205.8 million gallons, according to a more detailed analysis announced late Monday.
BP’s Macondo well spewed 62,000 barrels of oil a day initially, and as the reservoir gradually depleted itself, the flow eased to 53,000 barrels a day until the well was finally capped and sealed July 15, according to scientists in the Flow Rate Technical Group, supervised by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Energy.
At these figures, BP could be on the hook for somewhere between $4.5 and $17.6 billion for the spill of 4.1 million barrels of oil. Internal documents at BP painted a much more dire (and realistic?) picture of what was going on at the site of the blowout. Documents released by Congress show that BP’s estimate of the ‘worst case’ scenario for a blowout with no blowout preventer to be as many as 100,000 barrels per day – raising the amount of fines to between $9.76 and $38 billion. When applying for a permit to drill the well, the worst case was estimated back then to be 160,000 barrels per day – adjusting fines higher to $15.62 to $61.12 billion.
In any event, an accurate measurement will not be taken, and that’s about the best news possible for BP. Actually, it might only be the second best bit of news. Turns out, they’ll also get to be in charge of gathering their own evidence to be used against them:
“The items at the bottom of the sea are a big deal for everybody,” said Stephen Herman, a New Orleans lawyer for injured rig workers and others.
BP will surely want a look at the items, particularly if it tries to shift responsibility for the disaster onto other companies, such as Transocean, which owned the oil platform, Halliburton, which supplied the crew that was cementing the well, and Cameron International, maker of the blowout preventer.
BP and Transocean — which could face heavy penalties if found to be at fault — have said they will raise some of the wreckage if it can be done without doing more damage to the oil well. That would give the two companies responsibility for gathering up the very evidence that could be used against them.
But the federal government has said it simply doesn’t have the know-how and the deep-sea equipment that the drilling industry has. And it said the operation will be closely supervised by the Coast Guard.
Closely supervised by the Coast Guard – the same Coast Guard that never got the accurate estimates of the oil gusher, and has consistently low-balled estimates from the start – initially saying on April 23rd, the day the rig sank, that no oil was going to leak into the Gulf.
The administration, for its part, has continued to tread lightly on a line between happiness over the disaster being “over” and trying to not hang a virtual “Mission Accomplished” banner behind them, and some members of the media have called them out on this:
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, battered by weeks of questions about the administration’s spill response, bristled when asked whether he would display a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
“I think it is fairly safe to say that because of the environmental effects of Mother Nature, the warmer waters of the Gulf and the federal response, that many of the doomsday scenarios that we talked about and repeated a lot have not and will not come to fruition,” said Gibbs, who otherwise was happy to field 90 minutes of press questions flanked by National Incident Commander Thad Allen and Obama’s top environmental adviser Carol Browner.
Once again, intelligent people – scientists – find their selves on the outside looking in when it comes to trying to deliver truth to the masses. In this case, it’s the harsh reality that this disaster still has a long, long way to go:
But those assurances failed to satisfy scientists and environmental groups, who disputed the claim by Carol Browner, the White House energy and climate adviser, that “the vast majority of oil is gone”.
In Louisiana, state wildlife officials told CNN that tar balls and patches of oil were still washing up in the marshes and coastal areas of St Bernard, Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes.
Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, said the White House had been too quick to declare the oil was gone. “The blanket statement that the public understood is that most of the oil has disappeared. That is not true. About 50% of it is still in the water,” she said.
Like other scientists, she said the report failed to explain how it reached its estimates on the amount of oil that was biodegraded naturally, or dispersed with chemicals. “There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
Even the White House’s own estimates still left a spill five times the size of that from the Exxon Valdez, she said, with long-term consequences that would be unknown for years to come.
The “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is likely to continue, sadly.
The new report comes after days of speculation about where the Gulf oil has gone. After the damaged well had been capped July 19, U.S. Coast Guard flyovers didn’t spot any big patches of crude on the water.
But oil cleanup is mostly getting rid of what’s on the surface, Carney said. There’s a common perception that “as long as you keep it off the beach, everything’s hunky dory,” he added.
In fact, scientists are still finding plenty of spilled Gulf oil—whether it’s bubbling up from under Louisiana’s islands, trapped underneath Florida’s sugar-white beaches, or in the ocean’s unseen reaches.
This week, biological oceanographer Markus Huettel and colleague Joel Kostka dug trenches on a cleaned Pensacola beach and discovered large swaths of oil up to two feet (nearly a meter) deep.
Oil gets trapped underground when tiny oil droplets penetrate porous sand or when waves deposit tarballs and then cover them with sand, said Huettel, of Florida State University in Tallahassee.