Call it a “Mission Accomplished” moment for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Minutes after NOAA released a Wednesday report intimating nearly three fourths of the 4.9 million barrels of oil BP spewed into the Gulf of Mexico was either removed or otherwise no longer a threat, the marine science community was charging the barricades, claiming major combat was far from over.
“It gives the impression that somehow, most of the oil is gone, and therefore no longer a problem,” said Ian McDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who has studied the Gulf for decades.
“Well, they use ‘dissolved,’, ‘dispersed’, ‘degraded.’ But the bottom line is this: The oil has not left the building. You might not be able to see much of it floating on the surface, but it’s still in the water. “
To be fair to NOAA, this controversy may largely be the result of lay media misinterpreting the report. A Bloomberg News piece stated this: “About 74 percent of the oil that leaked from BP Plc’s damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico is no longer in the water, according to a U.S. government report.”
That’s not exactly what the report said.
If you crunch the numbers in the report’s pie chart, you’ll see that only 27 percent has been quantifiably accounted for–17 percent direct recovery, 5 percent burned, 3 percent skimmed.
It’s all those other numbers–especially the figures associated with “dispersed” or “dissolved” and “residual.”
“None of those mean the oil has left the Gulf, they just mean it’s in the ecosystem in a form other than the black stuff that comes out of the well,” said Dr. Bob Shipp, marine scientist at the University of South Alabama, and chairman of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.
“The many different components of the oil are still there. And it’s there in record volumes, at depths where it doesn’t degrade quickly. It’s in the ecosystem where it is a threat up and down the food web.
“We don’t know what the impacts will be, certainly not the long-term impacts. So anyone who thinks this is over is really being misled.”
Dr. Jerald Ault, University Miami researcher, said much of the oil that was hit by dispersants at depth has been diffused into the water column in the north central Gulf, an area critical to a wide range of important species. The particles are microscopic in size, but can contain a lethal punch for animals as large as giant tuna and possibly whales. “This is an area used as a spawning ground by giant bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, some of the billfishes and many others,” Ault said. “We know eggs and larvae will die if they come into contact with these components (of oil).
“The real worry is that we don’t know where this is going. There is a lot of oil out there still. Maybe you can’t see it, but it’s still there, and will be for a very long time.” Even the 26 percent “residual” is a lot of oil–almost 44 million gallons. And some of it in black sticky form washes up on parts of the Louisiana coast every day.
“The bottom line is that 26 percent of the estimated release remains as an oily phase,” said Pedro Alvarez, chair of the civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.” This does not mean the remaining 74 percent of the spill has been ‘solved.’ Most of that has not been removed as implied by the report. Most of that 74 percent is still in the water, migrating and spreading and also possibly degrading.”