Once BP managed to cap the well that had gushed millions and millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, we started to see media reports that most of the oil had magically vanished. This is the AFP, on July 27:
With BP’s broken well in the Gulf of Mexico finally capped, the focus shifts to the surface clean-up and the question on everyone’s lips is: where is all the oil?
For three long months a massive slick threatened the shorelines of Louisiana and other southern US Gulf Coast states as BP tried everything from top hats to junk shots and giant domes to stanch the toxic sludge.
A cap stopped the flow on July 15 after between three and 5.2 million barrels (117.6 million and 189 million gallons) had gushed out. Roughly one quarter of that was picked up by BP’s various collection and containment systems.
After frantic efforts to skim and burn the crude on the surface — some 34.7 million gallons of oil-water mix have been recovered and 411 burns have been conducted — the real difficulty now is finding any oil to clean up.
Dozens of reconnaissance planes fly constant sorties from Florida to Texas noting any oil sightings, while flat-bottomed boats trawl the marshes for lumps of tar too large to biodegrade.
“What we’re trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it,” said US spill response chief Thad Allen. …
The figures speak for themselves. Before the cap went on, some 25,000 barrels of oil a day were being skimmed from the thickest part of the slick near the well site.
By the time Tropical Storm Bonnie arrived last week, the take was down to a pitiful 56 barrels, begging the question of what to do with the fleet of 800 skimmers, many of them run by disgruntled fishermen.
Jane Lubchenco, the head of the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said Tuesday that a lot of the oil had been broken down naturally.
“We know that a significant amount of the oil has dispersed and been biodegraded by naturally occurring bacteria,” she said.
“Bacteria that break down oil are naturally abundant in the Gulf of Mexico, in large part because of the warm water there and the conditions afforded by nutrients and oxygen availability.”
“We are currently doing a very careful analysis to better understand where the oil has gone,” she added.
With no more oil to be skimmed, BP’s CEO designate Bob Dudley talked about scaling back the clean-up effort:
BP’s incoming CEO said Friday that it’s time for a “scaleback” of the massive effort to clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but he added that the commitment to make things right is the same as ever.
Tens of thousands of people – many of them idled fishermen – have been involved in the cleanup, but more than two weeks after the leak was stopped there is relatively little oil on the surface, leaving less work for oil skimmers to do.
That “very careful analysis” that Jane Lubchenco was speaking about? The NOAA was pleased to release the results yesterday:
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.
U.S. officials announced that nearly 70 percent of the spilled oil dissolved naturally, or was burned, skimmed, dispersed or captured, with almost nothing left to see — at least on top of the water. That declaration came on the same day they trumpeted success in plugging up the leaking well with drilling mud,
The report, incidentally, “was based on findings from government and non-government scientists”. In case you’re wondering where you’ve heard that phrase before in the context of the BP oil spill, it was the phrase used to describe the Flow Rate Technical Group, the U.S. government expert panel that decided, after very careful estimation, no doubt, that the rate at which oil was spewing from the well was 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day (which, if you remember, turned out be exactly the gross underestimate BP executives had been praying for every night).
The funny thing about the NOAA’s very careful analysis of what happened to all the oil is the masterful way they club things together.
…government scientists reported that most of the crude that gushed from it for three months has dissipated or been removed from the water.
The NOAA would have you believe that there’s no meaningful distinction between removing the oil from the water and “dissipating” it into the water. (Isn’t that like saying there’s no meaningful distinction between pissing in the pot and flushing to remove it from the bathroom system, or just pissing all over the floor and letting it dissipate into the bathroom system?)
Continuing with the official NOAA rhetoric:
In a summary of the report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the White House said a third of the oil released in the spill was “captured or mitigated” by recovery operations, “including burning, skimming, chemical dispersion and direct recovery from the wellhead.” It said 25 percent “naturally evaporated or dissolved, and 16 percent was dispersed naturally into microscopic droplets.”
The summary said the “residual amount” of 26 percent “is either on or just below the surface as residue and weathered tarballs, has washed ashore or been collected from the shore, or is buried in sand and sediments.” It said dispersed and residual oil eventually breaks down through natural processes and that “early indications are that the oil is degrading quickly.”
Evaporated or dissolved, equally good? (Hold that thought; we’ll come back to it in just a moment.)
Clearly, we are being invited not to lose sleep over the residual amount of 26%. And why should we? It’s only five times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. And, hey, it’ll eventually break down.
According to NOAA Director Jane Lubchenco, the report actually indicates that “At least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system”. That comes from “adding up the amounts that were recovered, burned, skimmed, evaporated or dissolved.” Lubchenco, clearly regards dissolved oil as “completely gone from the system”. Perhaps, she can be persuaded to drink a glass of dissolved oil on live TV, just to reassure the country that dissolved oil is in fact perfectly safe, and quite harmless to man, woman or child?
Even if you let Lubchenco off the hook for the dissolved oil being lumped with recovered, burned, skimmed and evaporated, the oil that’s hiding out as residual oil (26%), naturally dispersed (16%) or chemically dispersed (8%) adds up to 50%. (Apparently, when Lubchenco said that “At least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system”, she didn’t mean 50% or more, she meant exactly 50%. This lady has a way with words, doesn’t she? A way that might be described by an innocent bystander as “fast and loose”.)
This 50%, the report assures us, “is currently being degraded naturally”. And at this point we’re only talking about roughly 10 times the oil that was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.
In any case, here are some of the early reviews of the NOAA report:
The underlying measurements and methodology were not made public, however, leaving much of it looking like so much guesswork.
Some researchers attacked the findings and methodology, calling the report premature at best and sloppy at worst. 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.”
“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.”
“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.
There is also the reassuring fact that the NOAA can’t even make up it’s mind whether or not a long-form report actually exists. Plus, the report doesn’t cite any scientific references.
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, (NOAA emergency response senior scientist Bill Lehr, an author of the report) said, are in his head.
Meanwhile, here’s one answer to the question of where the oil is hiding:
According to WVUE correspondent John Snell, local officials dispatched a dive team to a barrier island off of southeastern Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish to scan the sea floor for oil. The team, however, could barely see the sea floor, due to the current murky state of the area waters. But when the divers returned to shore, they made a rather remarkable discovery: Tiny holes that burrowing Hermit crabs had dug into the ground effectively became oil-drilling holes. When the divers placed pressure on the ground near the holes, oil came oozing up.
“It’s [like] Jed Clampett‘s oil,” P.J. Hahn, the Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director, told Fox8. “All we need is the theme song to ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ “
Relax, guys! It’s only residual oil. And it’s all properly accounted for. And it’s currently being degraded naturally. So, before you know it, it’ll all be gone.