[Marxism] The oil's still there

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 20 07:28:46 MDT 2010

Academic scientists say oil from gulf spill is not going away quickly

By David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy
Friday, August 20, 2010; A01

Academic scientists are challenging the Obama administration's 
assertion that most of BP's oil in the Gulf of Mexico is either 
gone or rapidly disappearing -- with one group Thursday announcing 
the discovery of a 22-mile "plume" of oil that shows little sign 
of vanishing.

That plume was measured in late June and was described Thursday by 
scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 
Massachusetts. The biggest news was not the plume itself: For 
weeks, government and university scientists have said that oil 
from BP's damaged well is still underwater.

The news was what is happening -- or not happening -- to it.

The scientists said that when they studied it, they saw little 
evidence that the oil was being rapidly consumed by the gulf's 
petroleum-eating microbes. The plume was in a deep, cold region 
where microbes tend to work slowly.

"Our data would predict that the plume would still be there now," 
said Benjamin Van Mooy, a Woods Hole researcher.

Their research came after a week in which other scientists had 
taken issue with the government's portrait of where all the oil 
went. On Thursday afternoon, Jane Lubchenco, the Oceanic and 
Atmospheric Administration's administrator, defended the 
government's work, saying it was done by the "best scientific 
minds" and reviewed by outsiders.

"We remain confident in our assessment," she said.

The Woods Hole research, published in the peer-reviewed journal 
Science, provided one of the most detailed pictures yet of what 
this oil is doing under the surface.

The scientists said that, using a robot submarine that zigzagged 
across the deep gulf, they found a plume of oil droplets that was 
as tall as a 65-story building and more than a mile wide. The 
plume, whose droplets were so small that the water appeared clear, 
extended off to the southwest of the well, 3,600 feet deep.

They said they were puzzled about how, exactly, the oil got there: 
Despite the conventional wisdom that oil floats, this crude seemed 
to have stopped rising less than halfway through its journey from 
the well to the surface. They thought that perhaps icelike hydrate 
crystals played a role, or that the dispersant chemicals squirted 
into the oil as it escaped.

What was certain, at least at that time, was that it wasn't 
disappearing. Scientists tested the levels of dissolved oxygen to 
find out whether they were unusually low, which would indicate 
that microbes were at work. But they weren't.

The researchers declined to speculate about how their findings 
should alter the government's official "budget" of what became of 
BP's oil. Their inquiry, they said, was limited to finding the 
plume -- and, for now, they couldn't say what percent of the 
spilled oil it contained.

In the future, "we may be able to say whether [this plume] is a 
penny in a very large checkbook," said Christopher M. Reddy of 
Woods Hole. "Or whether it's bigger."

The federal government's initial estimate of the oil's fate, 
announced Aug. 4, provided a major shift in the narrative of the 
spill. Suddenly, a historic disaster looked manageable -- its 
mysteries distilled into a pie chart.

"More than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of 
the oil is gone," White House climate and energy czar Carol M. 
Browner said on NBC's "Today" show that day.

The report did not go that far, but it did portray a spill that 
was rapidly losing its punch. The report said that of the 4.9 
million barrels (205.8 million gallons) that escaped BP's well, 
about half had been cleaned up, evaporated or dissolved.

The other half might still be in the gulf, the report said. But 
the government said that half of it had been dispersed by 
chemicals and natural processes, and that preliminary indications 
showed the remaining oil was "biodegrading quickly."

Since then, the government has begun a new effort to track the 
location and environmental effects of oil underwater. But 
Lubchenco defended the decision to release the first assessment 

"What do you think would have happened if folks learned that we 
were studying where the oil was but we refused to tell people what 
we knew?" she said.

Lubchenco, in her afternoon news conference, said that microbes 
could have begun eating much more of the oil in the two months 
since. The study "tells us what was happening in June," she said. 
"It doesn't tell us what was happening now."

It is still true that the gulf spill has not caused the kind of 
apocalyptic damage to marshes and coastal ecosystems that 
scientists had feared. But this week, scientists have criticized 
the government, saying it has made the situation seem far rosier 
than it is.

Testifying before a House subcommittee Thursday, Florida State 
University professor Ian R. MacDonald called the administration's 
account "misleading." He said that the government's assumptions 
about how much oil is breaking down underwater were too optimistic 
and that its report didn't mention the natural gas that gushed out 
of BP's Macondo well along with the oil.

"This oil is going to be in the environment for a long time. I 
think that the imprint of the BP release, the discharge, will be 
detectable in the Gulf of Mexico for the rest of my life," said 
MacDonald, who is 58.

In that hearing, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) criticized a NOAA 
scientist for saying that the agency might wait two months before 
releasing the full details of the methodology it used to calculate 
what happened to the oil. "That is, to me, unacceptable. We need 
to have that information," he said.

The report was also challenged this week by a group of Georgia 
academics. They questioned the government's inclusion in its pie 
chart of the 17 percent of the oil that emerged from the well but 
never entered the gulf. It was, instead, siphoned directly to the 
surface. By including the amount in the official chart, they said, 
the government seemed to take credit for cleaning up oil that 
never spilled.

In addition, the Georgia group said the government was overly 
optimistic in reporting that about 25 percent of the oil either 
evaporated or dissolved.

"The vast majority of this oil never got to the surface, so it 
couldn't have evaporated," said Charles S. Hopkinson, a professor 
in the department of marine sciences at the University of Georgia. 
Federal officials disagree, estimating that four-fifths of the oil 
rose to the surface.

The Georgia group's conclusions were built largely on assumptions 
and calculations -- not direct measurements from the gulf.

To gauge what's really happening underwater, scientists must find 
tiny droplets in a vast ocean, then wait for lab tests to verify 
that it's oil from the BP well. In some cases, it's not even oil: 
One Louisiana scientist said his lab has tested several samples 
and found that they were an apparently natural substance, now 
nicknamed "sea snot."

University of South Florida research was an attempt to gather 
real-world evidence in the gulf. Scientists shone ultraviolet 
light on sediment from the bottom of the DeSoto Canyon, a deep 
notch in the edge of the continental shelf, full of sea life. If 
oil were there, it would reflect the light.

"It flashes back at you as sort of a constellation of bright 
stars," said David Hollander, a professor who worked on the 
seafloor study.

Other tests, he said, showed that the water samples near the 
canyon's rim were toxic to plankton, key creatures at the base of 
the food chain. But Hollander said that other things reflect UV 
light, and that further tests are needed to confirm that what they 
found was BP oil.

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