Is the Oil Gone?

by Michelle Frey

August 6, 2010

This blog comes from John Hocevar, Greenpeace oceans campaigner.

John HocevarIn a report released on August 4, the Obama administration declared that 74% of oil from the BP oil spill has evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed. Obama’s Climate and Energy Czar Carol Browner was quoted saying, “The vast majority of the oil is gone.”

But these conclusions are somewhere between wishful thinking and outright spin. The fact is that even this report acknowledges that no more than a quarter has been recovered.  A bit more has evaporated, leaving somewhere between 3 and 4 million barrels of oil still in the Gulf and on the shorelines of FL, LA, MS, and AL. This is more than 10 Exxon Valdez oil spills still out there somewhere.

And while dispersed or dissolved oil is no longer in the same form as when it was released from the wellhead, it’s still there, and still causing problems that are poorly understood but likely to be serious and often persistent.

The truth is, we have no way of knowing if the numbers released yesterday are at all accurate. The Administration left out some important details that make it impossible to have much faith in their numbers. In its assessment, NOAA refers to “scientific calculations” and “equations” but doesn’t let us see what those calculations are, where they came from or what data was used in them.  So, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seeking details that led to their “disappearing oil” conclusions. Unless this information if revealed, independent scientists will have no way to review NOAA’s methods. No one would be able to re-examine their findings to ensure that the conclusions are accurate. Perhaps NOAA doesn’t want anyone double-checking their math?

This is, unfortunately, not surprising. Many questions have remained unanswered throughout the entire Gulf oil spill disaster and its response. Last week we submitted 27 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to uncover information on underwater oil plumes, impacts to marine wildlife, chemical dispersants and more.

Even if the report’s calculations are accurate, we know that the Gulf will be feeling the effects of this disaster long after the oil disappears from the human eye. Despite the fact that the wellhead appears to have been capped, we must redouble efforts to understand the true impacts of this catastrophe. There is no question that some of the oil is being broken down by bacteria, but this eats up a lot of oxygen. How is this process affecting the Gulf dead zone that plagues the Gulf each summer?
The impact on commercially and recreationally important fish stocks is another huge concern, but so far remains largely unknown. Of further concern is the impact on Gulf food webs. Oil and dispersant has been observed in plankton, which moves quickly up the food chain to whales and whale sharks. Even more poorly understood is the impact on the deep sea. Cold water coral reefs and the sponges and anemones of the sea floor provide habitat for many species, but very, very little exploration has yet been done to investigate the health of this critical part of the Gulf ecosystem.

These are many questions that still need answers in the wake of this disaster.  That’s why next week, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise will begin a three-month expedition to support independent scientists’ efforts to research the impacts to the Gulf’s ecosystem and marine life.

Arctic Sunrise

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