WASHINGTON (CN) – Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., asked federal officials on Thursday to let independent scientists review data from an optimistic study released last week stating that most of the oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico had been collected or disappeared.
“You shouldn’t have released it until you knew it was right,” Markey said at a special recess hearing of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. “It sent a signal.” Markey said Gulf residents especially “don’t want this to be downplayed or to be low-balled.”
The report, released Aug. 4 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal agencies, stated that of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed from the BP well, only a quarter remained in the Gulf.
According to the report, 75 percent of the oil had been collected, skimmed off, evaporated, dispersed or dissolved in the water column, and “another quarter is still out there,” said NOAA senior scientist Bill Lehr.
Lehr said 800,000 barrels of oil were captured in drill ships above the broken wellhead, leaving 4.1 million barrels spilled into the ocean.
Markey called the study overconfident.
“There was an optimistic spin in some quarters that was placed upon that report,” Markey said. The agency released the report last week, and it is now being peer-reviewed.
Markey said that if the agencies were prepared to convey such a strong positive message about the Gulf, they should have performed independent evaluation in “real time.”
Markey asked that the data be turned over to independent scientists, but Lehr said the documents would not be released for another two months.
“If your numbers are wrong, two months from now may be too late,” Markey said.
Markey and Lehr did math in the hearing room, with Markey moving through a calculation showing that, of the 4.1 million barrels spilled into the ocean, 6 percent had been burned and 4 percent was skimmed off, “leaving 90 percent unaccounted for, minus what is recovered on the shoreline” – a much different story than the government’s claim that only 25 percent is “still out there.”
“Between 60 and 90 percent remains in the Gulf,” Markey said, quickly translating it to between 2.45 million and 3.675 million barrels still in the Gulf.
When he asked Lehr to confirm the numbers, Lehr laughed.
As Markey and Lehr worked over the numbers Thursday afternoon, an independent group of scientists in Massachusetts announced that they had confirmed the existence of a large underwater plume in the Gulf.
“Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have detected a plume of hydrocarbons that is at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico,” according to a press release issued Thursday afternoon.
“The 1.2-mile-wide, 650-foot-high plume of trapped hydrocarbons provides at least a partial answer to recent questions asking where all the oil has gone as surface slicks shrink and disappear,” scientists said, calling the plume “a residue of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”
The government’s Aug. 4 estimates, published in the report “BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget: What Happened to the Oil?,” did not account for underwater oil, stating that the 1 million barrels, or 26 percent, of oil remaining in the Gulf after recovery efforts “is either on or just below the surface as light sheen and weathered tar balls, has washed ashore, or is buried in sand and sediments.”
The scientists presented a different story.
“We’ve shown conclusively not only that a plume exists, but also defined its origin and near-field structure,” said the study’s lead scientist Richard Camilli. “Until now, these have been treated as a theoretical matter.”
The scientists said microbes were degrading the plume “relatively slowly,” and there was a possibility that the plume “had and will persist for some time.”
The scientists said they did not know how toxic the plume was, and would not know its entire chemical makeup for a few months.