Gulf Oil Spill: Vast Majority of Pollution Could Lurk Below Surface for Months or Years
As little as 1/60th of the oil belching from a blown-out deep-sea BP
well could be making it all the way up to the surface of the Gulf of
Mexico right away, judging from the results of a field test of a similar
scenario conducted in 2000 by a consortium including the Department of
the Interior's Mineral Management Service and BP.
The test results provide yet another indication that the government
and BP were insufficiently prepared for the wide-ranging repercussions
associated with a deep-water leak.
The findings suggests that oil from the spill could continue to
emerge months if not years from now, and hundreds if not thousands of
And the study also provides yet more evidence that the initial
official spill estimates were off by at least an order of magnitude.
BP on Thursday finally abandoned its 5,000 barrel (or 210,000 gallons) a
day estimate, after finding that a tube inserted into a leaking pipe
over the weekend and capturing only a fraction of the spill was itself
capturing 5,000 barrels a day -- along with 15 million cubic feet of natural gas.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, amazingly
enough, appears to be sticking to its own 5,000 barrel a day estimate,
which was initially based on the size of the oil slick. But if only a
tiny fraction of the spill is actually visible on the surface, then that
estimate is obviously very badly off.
McClatchy Newspapers reported Thursday night that
BP's low-ball estimate, "which the Obama administration hasn't disputed,
could save the company millions of dollars in damages when the
financial impact of the spill is resolved in court, legal experts say."
Ten years before BP's well blew up and started disgorging oil and
gas, the Department of the Interior's Mineral Management Service, along
with 23 oil companies and the Norwegian government conducted
a test deep under the Norwegian Sea, releasing nearly 16,000
gallons of diesel oil and then carefully watching what happened to it.
(See the the Powerpoint presentation of the test, which was
first brought to my attention by seminal.firedoglake.com.)
Only some of that diesel was ever accounted for -- somewhere in the
range between 250 and 5,000 gallons. The rest presumably either
evaporated, dissolved away -- or, in the form of smaller droplets, was
carried far away from the observers. Those droplets "would have been
carried much further by residual plume effects, and then would have
risen to the surface much more slowly," the study found.
Eric Adams, an environmental engineer at MIT, wrote the final report on the study in 2004.
The controlled release was just over half as deep as the Deepwater
Horizon spill, and was, relatively speaking, tiny. Yet the lessons were
clear, Adams told HuffPost.
"Not very much of it was recovered at the surface," Adams said. "It's
probable that a lot of it did ultimately get to the surface, it just
got to the surface so far away it was never accounted for."
As a result, Adams said, "I think you should be prepared for more oil
to surface over time."
Adams said he was surprised that federal officials weren't more
prepared to deal with a deep-sea leak and its consequences, given how
much was known ahead of time. Officials should have been aware that oil
released so far below the surface would quickly spread out and become
unrecoverable unless they did something about it.
"I would have tried to corral it, I guess," Adams said. "Knowing how
ill-behaved the oil could be in an ocean that is not quiescent, I'm
really chagrined that their efforts to contain it didn't work."
The initial containment effort amounted to an ill-fated attempt to
drop a lid on the well, three weeks after the initial explosion.
"I would have proposed at least careful consideration of some sort of
a flexible shroud, or a shower curtain, some sort of flexible device
that could be anchored above the leak, to form like a chimney to bring
the oil up," Adams said.
"Basically what that's doing is preventing the oil from scattering.
It would bring it up into a relatively confined area on the surface, and
it would be thick enough it could be easily contained with booms and
sucked up into tankers," he said.
"It wouldn't be spreading all over the place."
WATCH LIVE VIDEO from the leak site: