Scientist Smackdown: How Much of BP's Oil Is Left in the Gulf?

By Andrew Moseman | February 22, 2011 4:59 pm

As BP’s oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico week after week last summer, we got accustomed to wildly different estimates for how quickly the oil was leaking and how much entered the gulf. Now, 10 months after the mess began, government and independent scientists have wildly different estimates for how much of the oil remains.

Oceanographer Samantha Joye, speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington this weekend, revealed the findings of her trips to the Gulf to study the seafloor. In December she dove to areas around the site of BP’s well blowout, finding—and photographing—layers of gunky hydrocarbons. The oil was up to inches thick in places.

“Magic microbes consumed maybe 10 percent of the total discharge, the rest of it we don’t know,” Joye said, later adding: “there’s a lot of it out there.” [AP]

To explain how so much oil got down to the seafloor, Joye’s team did an experiment when they got back to the lab. Joye put a dab of oil from the BP well into a vial of water taken from nearby in the Gulf, then watched.

After just one day, naturally occurring microbes in the water began growing on the oil. After a week, the cells formed blobs, held together by spit, that were so heavy they began sinking to the bottom of a jar. Two weeks later, large streamers of microbial slime and cells were evident. Brown dots visible inside the mix were emulsified oil. “This is the mechanism that we propose deposited oil to the [Gulf’s] bottom,” Joye said. [Science News]

Joye’s 10 percent estimation is a huge departure from the one made this weekend by Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The head of the agency in charge of the health of the Gulf said Saturday that she thought that “most of the oil is gone.” And a Department of Energy scientist, doing research with a grant from BP from before the spill, said his examination of oil plumes in the water column show that microbes have done a “fairly fast” job of eating the oil. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab scientist Terry Hazen said his research differs from Joye’s because they looked at different places at different times. [AP]

Where Joye looked, though, both the presence of oil and the toll on life were clear.

She often saw dead corals, crabs and sea stars in the affected seafloor areas. Absent were sea cucumbers that are normally abundant in parts of the Gulf where natural petroleum seeps occur. Damage was also evident above the seafloor: Mortality in free-floating jellyfish and sea squirts proved especially high, Joye said. And some worms had become nothing more than hollow tubes filled with the slimy goop that chemical fingerprinting methods would later show had contained BP oil. [Science News]

While oceanographers argue over how much oil remains, BP is slogging through the process of settling its legal responsibilities. Fund manager Ken Feinberg made his offer this week.

Finally, nearly 500,000 people with claims know Feinberg’s final formula. With proper documentation, BP will write most of them a check for twice their losses for 2010. Oystermen will get four times their losses. Accept, and they agree not to sue BP. [CBS News]

It’s now up to them to settle or sue.

Related Content:
80beats: Massive Coral Die-Off Found Just 7 Miles from BP Oil Spill Site
80beats: Good News: Bacteria Ate All the Deepwater Horizon Methane
80beats: BP Report on Gulf Disaster Spreads the Blame Around
80beats: Scientists Find 22-Mile-Long Oily Plume Drifting in the Gulf of Mexico
80beats: Gulf Coast Turtle News: No More Fiery Death; Relocating 70,000 Eggs

Image: University of Georgia / Samantha Joye

  • Douglas Watts

    So when do scientists step up and challenge obviously fraudulent conclusions?

  • nick

    Unfortunately, scientists need to eat and support their families, and trips to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico are probably expensive, so no one’s going to do this unless it’s work sponsored. The government has a vested interest in the “all is well” message because it will mean a quicker return to economic business as usual and a figurative gold star in the media. I’m not saying they’re lying outright, but the trips that administrators send .Gov scientists on are likely to be skewed towards less damaged areas in an attempt to polish this turd.

  • Jim H

    @Douglas, you mean this nutters crazy conclusion? A “dab of oil from the BP well into a vial of water ” is about as good a model of the deep ocean ecosystem as Skylab is for studying human life on earth. There is one picture of what is alleged to be a dead crab, but that crab is sitting on what appears to be perfectly clean rock. Let’s do a real study and find out what the extent of the problem truly is.


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