Scientists have mapped a 22-mile plume of oil droplets from BP's
rogue well in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, providing the strongest
evidence yet of the fate of the crude that spewed into the sea for
The report offers the most authoritative challenge to date
to White House assertions that most of the 5m barrels of oil that
spewed into the Gulf is gone.
"These results indicate that efforts
to book-keep where the oil went must now include this plume," said
Christopher Reddy one of the members of the team from Woods Hole
The report, which is published in the journal Science,
also said the plume was very slow to break down by natural forces,
increasing the likelihood that oil could have travelled long distances
in the Gulf before it was degraded.
"Many people speculated that
subsurface oil droplets were being easily degraded," said Richard
Camilli, the lead author of the paper. "Well we didn't find that. We
found it was still there."
At the heart of the debate is the rate
at which naturally occurring microbes have consumed the oil from the
runaway well. Even by the White House estimates, about one quarter of
the oil was siphoned away from the well, skimmed off the surface, or
burned. But the White House, in a high-profile briefing, earlier this
month suggested that microbes had eaten as much as 50% of the remaining
The study reinforces earlier reports from research voyages
led by scientists from the University of Georgia and Texas A&M
University who detected the presence of deepwater plumes of oil.
the authors argued that theirs was more authoritative as it is the
first to be published in a major peer-reviewed journal since oil began
pumping into the ocean from the broken well four months ago. The authors
also noted their access to superior technology including one of the few
underwater robots available outside the oil industry.
According to their findings the deepwater plume measures 22 miles long, 1.2 miles wide and 650 feet high.
team took around 57,000 samples from the plume during a 10-day research
voyage at the end of June. It found that the plume was not made up of
pure oil but a combination of toxic oil compounds including benzene and
The study puts the White House and government scientific
agencies in an increasingly awkward position after a high-profile
announcement two weeks ago that the oil was broken down or had been
A team led by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that just over a quarter of the 49m barrels of oil remained in the Gulf as a light sheen on the surface or degraded tar balls washing ashore.
also raises new questions about the strategic decision taken by the
Obama administration to use nearly 2m gallons of chemical dispersant
Corexit to break up the oil, including some on the ocean floor 5,000
feet below the surface.
The administration faces further pushback
today in a congressional hearing on the fate of the oil and the safety
of seafood from the Gulf.
Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at
Florida State University, said the White House accounting for the oil is
misleading and that only 10% of the oil that spewed into the Gulf has
been removed from the ocean. Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA chief and herself a
marine scientist, has stood by the government estimates.