Oil Plumes: Pressure on Scientists and Pursuit of the Truth

by Kert Davies

August 18, 2010

“The oil is on the surface. There aren’t any plumes.”

This was one of Tony Hayward’s famously foolish proclamations during his desperate final months as the CEO of British Petroleum, before he was relocated to Russia, perhaps to ‘get his life back’… With his $18 million severance package he should make plenty of new friends buying rounds of vodka shots.

Big news yesterday from far more credible sources at the University of Georgia and the University of South Florida presents more evidence on the extent of underwater oil plumes and widespread oil STILL in the Gulf, suggesting that almost 80% of the oil is likely to still be floating around the Gulf under the surface. This contrasts starkly with the US Government claims that 75% of the oil had magically disappeared, detailed in the recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report.


While I’m not surprised that BP would downplay or outright deny the every aspect the mess they created, it is far more serious for federal agencies charged with recovery efforts to jump on BP’s PR whitewash boat. After the glaring federal failure to regulate the safety of drilling rigs before the accident, and Obama’s ‘foot in mouth’ March 30th declaration that oil drilling is safe as can be, surely the people of the United States expected the government to keep their “boot on BP’s neck” a little more firmly during cleanup. What more could it possibly take than 11 deaths and the worst single ecological disaster in U.S. history to make our government break up the love fest with the oil industry?

Whether or not it is their intention, some federal agencies have apparently mirrored BP’s hush-hush behavior. Back in mid-May, announcements by scientists searching for underwater oil was answered by federal scolding. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco proclaimed that the scientists’ reports were “misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate,” and stressed that evidence of underwater plumes was not conclusive. As the St. Petersburg Times revealed last week, some scientists were taken aback by the rejection of their findings. According to Dr. Vernon Asper, an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi:

“We expected that NOAA would be pleased because we found something very, very interesting,” Asper said. “NOAA instead responded by trying to discredit us. It was just a shock to us.” […] “She basically called us inept idiots,” Asper said. “We took that very personally.”

Perhaps it peeved scientists more when, after the conclusion of another voyage later that month, NOAA announced, “We have always known there is oil under the surface; the questions we are exploring are where is it, in what concentrations, where is it going, and what are the consequences for the health of the marine environment?” (emphasis added)

Are you sensing some mixed messaging here?

Luckily for the public, no matter what political games NOAA has played , independent scientists, including a team on board Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise , are continuing to study the extent of impacts of oil and dispersants on marine life, the Gulf ecosystem, and ultimately our own health.

Because of the dangers and unknowns of underwater oil plumes and the strange behavior of NOAA and other federal groups, Greenpeace asked these agencies about oil plumes in our recent hefty round of Freedom of Information Act requests . We will be sure to let you know what we learn here on the Greenpeace Gulf mission webpage, whether we find it deep in the Gulf of Mexico or deep inside the records of our federal agencies.

The Arctic Sunrise recently began a scientific expedition in the Gulf to study the impacts of the oil spill.

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