Why Don't We Know How Big the Gulf Oil Spill is?

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The image above may look like just another cartoon representation of an oil spill. But it's far more than that — it's glaring proof that the Minerals Management Service knew exactly what it was getting into with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico years before there even was a spill. They knew, they know, and yet all sorts of information is being deliberately and/or negligently withheld.

For example, a research cruise operated under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last weekend found evidence that large plumes of oil are hovering beneath the waves, perhaps as large fields of droplets. Surprised by this, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco called the report "premature" and "inaccurate." I'm not familiar with the ins and outs of mapping underwater oil plumes, but there are several reasons to believe the report was neither premature nor inaccurate. 

1. A reporter aboard the Pelican, a ship dispatched by NOAA to survey the spill, wrote last Thursday that researchers had found the underwater plume. The scientists sounded pretty convinced:

"That, my friend, is the smoking gun," says Vernon Asper, an oceanographer on the team, "We've got to home in on this. You never see signals like that in the open ocean." Certainly there are other possible explanations for what the team is seeing. But based on the limited information they've collected, their hypothesis, strengthened throughout the day, is that the instrument peaks had revealed a layer of dispersed oil.

2. BP has repeatedly dragged its feet in letting scientists get near the source of the

spill to get an accurate reading of how much oil is gushing out of the

sea floor. Again, I'm no engineer, and it's certainly possible that BP's

argument — that there are simply too many pieces of equipment near the

source of the spill right now to let scientists in to measure it — makes sense.

But their reluctance to make video of the leaking oil public is suspicious at best, and doesn't inspire confidence that they have only truth, transparency, and the best intentions in mind with their actions surrounding the spill.

3. The most damning piece of evidence: the image above. This is a slide taken from a Powerpoint presentation by the Minerals Management Service. In 2000, they conducted a field test called "Project Deep Spill" (in partnership with BP, among other companies).

They released small quantities of crude oil and diesel fuel at a depth of around 2,600 feet in the waters off Norway to see what would happen. They expected it to form small droplets and float to the surface, but it didn't — the majority of both types of oil stayed underwater. In short, the MMS knew that oil released deep underwater could remain invisible at the surface. Even when scientists aboard the Pelican made their discovery, the agency stayed quiet and let their counterparts at NOAA engage in a quixotic quest to retract those findings.

With the weight of evidence that has so far been made public, Lubchenco's statement smacks of hiding behind claims of incomplete data to obfuscate understanding of the true magnitude of this spill. This makes sense when oil companies hoping to salvage their image and prevent pesky scrutiny and regulations do it — their profit motive is clear. But what does NOAA have to gain from behaving this way?

At this point, though, motives are almost irrelevant. What needs to happen is that all government (and private interests) efforts to withhold information or obstruct scientists from doing their jobs must end immediately. The full force of our scientific capability to measure, understand, and contain this oil spill must be brought to bear. And keeping detailed records of the amount of oil in the water is vital to ensure that the parties involved — BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and/or the MMS — are properly held responsible for all damages and costs incurred during this mess.

Image: MMS via Firedoglake

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