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NOAA’s Lubchenco: Understanding Oil Leak’s Consequences in ‘Early Stages’

May 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Researchers working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have reported finding gigantic sub-surface plumes of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Gwen Ifill talks to Jane Lubchenco, head of the NOAA, about the the growing environmental concerns from the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

GWEN IFILL: We now take a closer look at what the government knows about the dangers lurking well below the surface as a result of the oil spill. Jane Lubchenco is the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. She joins me now.


JANE LUBCHENCO, administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: You’re trained as a marine biologist.


GWEN IFILL: So, how do we quantify the extent of the damage we have seen since this oil leak began?

JANE LUBCHENCO: This is an unprecedented oil spill. And we are still in the very early stages of understanding what the full consequences of it will be.

The administration has been very aggressive in its response, throwing every possible resource that we have at it, trying, first of all, to stop the flow, secondly, to contain the damage, and then, ultimately, to make sure that everyone is compensated appropriately.

So, the name of the game has been environmental mitigation. And all of this has been strongly underpinned by good scientific analyses and guidance and strong monitoring.

GWEN IFILL: People kept asking, lawmakers kept asking folks from BP today and Janet Napolitano on the Hill, why weren’t we prepared for this? Wasn’t there a drill run that would have rehearsed some response to an accident like this? But I guess my question to you is, how do you prepare or cope with damage that you can’t see?

JANE LUBCHENCO: Well, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there was a unit — the Oil Pollution Act was passed. And that laid out a series of steps that enabled us to be prepared for the oil spills that typically happen.

Within NOAA, for example, we have an Office of Response and Restoration, and we typically deal with around 200 spills a year. This one is different, though. This one is unprecedented because of the depth at which — from which the oil is coming and the inability to stop it.

It’s not like a tanker that is grounded, where there is a defendant, finite amount of oil.

GWEN IFILL: And it is not on the surface. It is so far down.

JANE LUBCHENCO: It’s so far down.

The oil that is at the surface, we can deal with by burning and skimming, to the extent that that is possible. And, in fact, our response in doing so has been very, very aggressive. Unfortunately, the weather has been — has — has made it challenging to do that skimming and burning.

And, so, use of dispersants has been the next best tool of choice. And the goal with the dispersants is really to…

GWEN IFILL: Now, when you’re talking about chemical — when you say dispersants, you mean like a chemical mixture that is actually insert — shot into the water to break up the oil — the oil slick?

JANE LUBCHENCO: Dispersants are not — not unlike detergent. It is sprayed from airplanes, for example, on to the surface of the very patchy slick that is there.

And the idea is to break up the oil in to much smaller droplets, so that it can go below the surface and be degraded by the natural microbes that are in the ocean. So, it speeds up the rate at which the oil can be broken down naturally.

GWEN IFILL: Is that an environmentally sound way of doing this? Don’t you create more problems than you fix?

JANE LUBCHENCO: Oil is inherently very toxic. And given that we have a very bad situation to begin with — it’s a toxic substance — this is a question of trade-offs.

And use of dispersants is deemed to be much less of an evil than the toxic nature of the oil. Dispersants break down very rapidly. They are a lot less toxic than the oil. And getting it away from the surface and enabling it to be broken down much more rapidly is probably considerably the lesser of two evils.

GWEN IFILL: Does it rob the ocean of oxygen, which might rob, like, coral on the — deep down in the sea of its ability to thrive?

JANE LUBCHENCO: The microbes that would be acting on and breaking down the oil do use oxygen. But if the dispersants are acting properly, the oil droplets are distributed over a significant area.

And, so, there shouldn’t be an overall considerable impact on the amount of oxygen that’s available.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about this oil plume we have been hearing about today, which is — sounds like a fairly scary idea, that way beneath what we can see, 300 feet thick in some places, 10 miles long, as we just heard someone say, in some places, the oil is out of sight, but not out of mind. Is that so? Is there a way to quantify that?

JANE LUBCHENCO: The research vessel that just returned from a trip, just…

GWEN IFILL: The Pelican that we just saw.

JANE LUBCHENCO: The Pelican that we just saw is in the very early stages of analyzing the samples that they took and looking at the information from the instruments that they had on board.

The ship was out doing something. It was initially designed to go do something completely different. And when the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon happened, they quickly changed and brought on new instruments and went out there, so they could begin to get information.

But, you know, science is a process. We’re in the very early stages of understanding what it is that they saw. It’s clear that there is something at depth, but we don’t even know that it’s oil yet. That’s — that’s a good possibility.

GWEN IFILL: What else would it be?

JANE LUBCHENCO: But the samples have not been analyzed. They have taken good samples. And we need to make sure that we’re not jumping to conclusions.

And that’s part of the — the normal process that science has. We want to make sure that we have good information. It…

GWEN IFILL: So, in short — pardon me — they have seen something irregular.

JANE LUBCHENCO: We have seen something irregular.

GWEN IFILL: They think it’s oil and that it’s at a great depth and has great — could have great impact, but you’re not certain for sure. You cannot…

JANE LUBCHENCO: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: … confirm that.

JANE LUBCHENCO: And we eagerly await the results of their analyses and the calibration of their instruments, which will give us better information.

GWEN IFILL: The other scary thing that we have been hearing about today and the last few days is the loop current, this Gulf Stream, which could take this oil and take — and wash it far away from where the incident happened, as far away as the Florida Keys, perhaps farther, coast of Texas.

What do we know about that?

JANE LUBCHENCO: We know that the loop current moves around a lot. It’s very dynamic. We know that the bulk of the oil is dozens of miles away from the loop current.

There’s a very small stream of oil that is a very light sheen that is getting close to the loop current. And it’s likely that, at some point, it will be entrained by the loop current. But that current, if there is oil entrained in it, it would be probably nine to 12 days before that would reach the Florida Strait.

And, during that time, it gets highly diluted, parts per billion, and it weathers naturally. And, so, any oil that would be reaching Florida Strait might be in the form of tar balls, for example. And whether it ever comes ashore or not would be a function of whether there were good onshore winds bringing it. So…

GWEN IFILL: You say tar balls, you mean tar balls or tar balls?

JANE LUBCHENCO: Probably little, very little tar balls. And the…

GWEN IFILL: So, you are saying it is highly unlikely that the loop current could bring substantial damage to faraway beaches or shorelines?

JANE LUBCHENCO: That’s correct.

GWEN IFILL: How about to faraway animals and — and underwater life?

JANE LUBCHENCO: By the time the oil is in the loop current, it’s likely to be very, very diluted. And, so, it’s not likely to have a very significant impact. It sounds scarier than it is.

GWEN IFILL: Are you satisfied, at this stage, based on what you know, that BP and Transocean, even the Mineral Management Services, which was the federal government agency which was in charge of overseeing all this, that they were doing all they could to prepare for an accident like this?

JANE LUBCHENCO: It’s highly unfortunate that this happened. And I think there will be lots of analyses about what could and should have been done.

I think we won’t be satisfied until the oil has been stopped and that the — the impacts of the oil have been mitigated and all of the claims have — that are legitimate have been processed.

GWEN IFILL: Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, thank you so much for joining us.

JANE LUBCHENCO: Thank you, Gwen.