BP Clashes with Scientists over Deep Sea Oil Pollution

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

BP Clashes with Scientists over Deep Sea Oil Pollution

Obama team 'incensed at being kept in the dark' as company denies existence of underwater oil clouds

by
Chris McGreal

A shrimp boat outfitted with booms to collect oil makes its way to port on May 27, near Grand Isle, Louisiana. BP officials warned Monday they may not be able to plug the Gulf of Mexico oil leak until August, as Louisiana residents warned the spill could wipe out dozens of fish species and their centuries-old way of life. (AFP/Getty Images/File/Win McNamee)

BP has challenged widespread scientific claims that vast plumes of oil
are spreading underwater from its blown-out rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
The denial comes as the oil giant prepares for a new operation to put
an end to the worst oil spill in US history - which could see the leak get worse before it gets better.

The company's challenge to several scientific studies is likely to put it further at odds with an increasingly angry Obama administration, which has accused it of playing down the size of the leak in an effort to limit possible fines.

BP's
chief executive, Tony Hayward, said it had no evidence of underwater
oil clouds. "The oil is on the surface," he said. "Oil has a specific
gravity that's about half that of water. It wants to get to the surface
because of the difference in specific gravity."

Hayward's
assertion flies in the face of studies by scientists at universities in
Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, among other institutions, who say
they have detected huge underwater plumes of oil, including one 120
metres (400ft) deep about 50 miles from the destroyed rig.

BP's
claim is likely only to further anger environmentalists and the White
House, which has grown increasingly suspicious of the company's claims
to be frank and transparent on developments. The president's
environmental adviser and director of the Office of Energy and Climate
Change Policy, Carol Browner, has accused BP of misstating the scale of
the leak.

"BP has a vested financial interest in downplaying the
size of this," she said on CBS television. "They will pay penalties at
the end of the day, a per-barrel per-day penalty."

Ed
Markey, chairman of the House of Representatives environment committee,
has also accused BP of underplaying the scale of the disaster and
suggested that it may have a criminal liability.

"The fine that
can be imposed upon them is based on how many barrels [pour in to the
sea]. It could wind up in billions of dollars of fines," said Markey.
"They had a stake in low-balling the number right from the beginning.
They were either lying or they were incompetent."

In the White House, under increasing criticism for not taking charge of the effort to stop the spill, some officials are saying they have been misled by the company or kept in the dark at key moments.

The Politico
website reported that the Obama team was incensed that the company
failed to inform it for a day and a half after suspending the failed "top kill" operation to plug the spill using rubber tyres and mud.

Obama
is expected to hold his first meeting today with the leaders of an oil
spill commission he established to make policy recommendations about US
offshore oil drilling. The commission will be similar to those that
looked into the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and
the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979.

Also today, US
attorney general Eric Holder will meet federal prosecutors and state
attorneys general in New Orleans. It will be Holder's first trip to
survey the damage before what legal experts believe will be a criminal
investigation into the disaster.

The dispute between the
administration and BP comes as the company readies its latest effort to
contain the flow of oil in to the sea, following the failure of top
kill. The new plan involves an intricate operation to cut the top off
the damaged riser that brought oil to the surface of the destroyed rig.
The intention is to create a flat surface to which to attach a valve
that would divert the oil into a pipe and on to a ship.

But
slicing the top off the damaged pipe may result in oil flowing into the
sea at a faster rate until the new valve is fitted. Even if successful,
the operation would only limit, not entirely stop, oil from flowing
into the sea. If this measure failed, BP's best hope of halting the oil
would remain the drilling of a relief well that would ease the pressure
on the damaged one. But the US government has warned that the spill
could continue into August.

The attempts to stop the oil flow have been given added urgency by the start of the hurricane season tomorrow.

Forecasters are predicting an unusually high number of storms over the next six months.
If the oil is still spread across the sea, a hurricane is likely to
disperse it over a much wider area and push it deeper into marshlands
and other inland areas, making the environmental disaster even worse.

The
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting between
eight and 14 hurricanes this season, with perhaps a similar number of
smaller storms.

The US military has ruled out taking charge of
the operation to stem the flow of oil from the blown-out BP rig. The
chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, today said
that military chiefs had looked at the available equipment and
concluded that "the best technology in the world, with respect to that,
exists in the oil industry".

A day earlier, the former US
secretary of state, Colin Powell, said the military should step in
because the crisis was now "beyond the capacity" of BP to stop.

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