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Oil Plume Study Raises New Questions on Spill

August 19, 2010 at 2:03 PM EDT
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Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution released the first conclusive evidence of an underwater oil plume in the Gulf of Mexico. Jeffrey Brown talks to one of the study's authors, Chris Reddy, and David Farenthold of The Washington Post.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now: new evidence of oil beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and questions as to whether a government study underplayed the extent of the problem.

The results of the federal study were unveiled earlier this month. It found just 26 percent of the roughly 200 million gallons of oil released from BP’s ruptured wellhead remained in the Gulf of Mexico.

JANE LUBCHENCO, administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: The vast majority of the oil has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed and recovered from the wellhead, or dispersed.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: Many of the doomsday scenarios that were talked about and repeated a lot have not and will not come to fruition.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, two weeks later, some scientists are taking issue with those findings. Speaking at a House hearing today, Florida State University’s Ian MacDonald questioned the government’s methodology and said he believes more oil was released and remains in the Gulf than has been acknowledged.

IAN MACDONALD, professor, Department of Oceanography, Florida State University: This oil is going to be in the environment for a long time. I think that the imprint of the BP release, the discharge, will be detectable in the Gulf of Mexico environment for the rest of my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Tuesday, researchers from the University of Georgia reported that as much as 79 percent of the oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon rig remains in the waters.

SAMANTHA JOYE, University of Georgia: My suspicion would be that a large fraction of this oil is still in the system.

JEFFREY BROWN: University of South Florida scientists also reported this week finding microscopic droplets of oil along the seafloor, which could have a toxic effect on the smallest organisms in the marine food chain.

DAVID HOLLANDER, University of South Florida: These waters showed a very clear phytoplankton and community health that was poor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution released the first conclusive evidence of an underwater plume of oil from the spill. Their work, reported in the journal “Science,” identified a 22-mile-long invisible mist of oil found in June half-a-mile below the surface.

For her part, Jane Lubchenco, the head of NOAA, said at a press conference in Louisiana this afternoon that, for now, she stands by the government’s estimate.

JANE LUBCHENCO: We believe those numbers remain to be the best numbers that are out there. We will continue to monitor very aggressively and to implement the directive that Admiral Allen issued last Friday to initiate a very — a blitzkrieg monitoring in the Gulf.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, at the site of the spill, officials plan to replace a failed piece of equipment called the blowout preventer on the wellhead. The final plugging of the blown-out well will now begin some time after Labor Day.

And we take a closer look now with Chris Reddy, a marine geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the authors of today’s study on mapping the underwater plume, and David Fahrenthold, who’s been covering this story for The Washington Post.

Chris Reddy, why don’t you start by describing what it is you found?

CHRIS REDDY, marine geochemist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute: Yes. In the last two weeks of June, I went out on a research cruise, and we plot — tracked a plume of oil that was about 22 miles long and about a mile — 1.2 miles wide.

And it’s an amazing result, because we all think oil floats. So, why is there a plume? And certainly that was what we were investigating is, why is there a plume? But we first had to figure out if there was one, because there was some conjecture at that time. And we feel pretty confident that we have found, identified the shape and the size of the plume.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, now, what — describe the plume, because, from what I gather, it’s not something that one can see or feel.

CHRIS REDDY: No. In fact, I collected most of the samples physically and looked at them. It looks like spring water. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no — the level of chemicals isn’t harmful.

But it’s certainly not Hershey Syrup. The concept of this rolling amounts of black death rolling through the middle of the ocean is — that’s not what visually it is. It’s just levels of oil compounds that are higher than its neighboring water.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you found this in June. Where would the plume be now and how much oil would you expect there to still be there?

CHRIS REDDY: These are really good questions. And these are some things that we would like — we continue to work on.

Certainly, the plume where we were, which was only a few miles away from the wellhead and out — I mean, from where the riser pipe was, is no longer there, because it’s moved away, and the faucet has been closed, per se.

But if — we don’t know where that oil that we were keeping such a good eye on in late June is right now. We would like to know, but we haven’t had a chance to chase it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how hard is it to continue to track?

CHRIS REDDY: Well, the farther you get away from the source, it’s — the harder and harder it is to find. It has a chance to meander or move from one place to another, or go up or go down a little. And it’s a lot harder than you think. The Gulf of Mexico is big. It’s not an easy challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Fahrenthold, let me bring you in here, because we reported on several studies that have been coming out in the last week. Put some context into this. Is it a dispute over displacement vs. breaking down oil? What do you see going on?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD, The Washington Post: Well, to me, the government’s report at the beginning of this month that you showed some clips from, that was intended to answer the sort of central mystery of this spill. This is not the Exxon Valdez, as Chris said, where all the oil floats on the surface. A lot of the oil was underneath the surface.

So, the question is, what became of it? A lot of it — and so that was just a mystery. Then there was a pie chart. The government came to us with this pie chart and said, here, we know what happened to all the oil. We have estimated it. And it looks like, OK, a lot of it is missing. It’s underneath the water, but our calculations show that the oil you can’t see is still not much of a problem, because a lot of it is degrading rapidly.

The question now is, were they right? Is the oil that we can’t see really either gone or on its way to being gone? That’s what the reports in the last few days have questioned, and what the findings of Chris’ team raise questions about, the speed at which microbes in the Gulf are eating the oil we can’t see.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are the others seeing — I mean, fill in that picture a little bit — that allows them to say that the government may be underestimating this?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Well, the — one of the studies is by the University of Georgia, and they didn’t actually do any of their own research. They basically ran their own calculations based on the government’s numbers.

And they just made more pessimistic assumptions about what became of the oil. They also tried to sort of narrow the picture a little bit. The government’s report counted as part of the whole a bunch of oil that never actually spilled into the Gulf, but instead was siphoned to the surface.

So, the University of Georgia scientists just ran their own numbers, put a different conjecture on this data than the government did, and came up with a more depressing picture.

The University of South Florida, they actually did some research out in the Gulf. And what they did was, they went down into a deep canyon near Florida and found what they believe to be, but haven’t proved to be, oil on the bottom and evidence that the oil in the water was toxic to these tiny creatures at the base of the marine food chain.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Chris Reddy, where do you and your team come down on the extent of the problem?

CHRIS REDDY: Well, I’m going to speak personally, as somebody who studies oil spills.

You know, these estimates that are coming out, they are estimates, and they’re not the end. You know, these estimates are going to improve and get more refined with time. The government and — has collected many outstanding samples that — around the Gulf. And when you — when these samples are finally analyzed — and it’s not — not because of the government being lackadaisical or anything like. It just takes a long time to get good data.

It’s not like these crime TV shows. Once you have this data, you not only will know how much oil is in a certain location, but, you know, oil changes the second it hits the water. And each compound that makes up that oil has a little different personality.

And so what you can do is, you can essentially interrogate a sample, and it will tell you a little bit more about whether this sample has had more microbes eat it or whether it’s been evaporated more. And so, for me, this is patience is a virtue. Samples will come in. And, you know, if I was going to get this data, I would have a cup of coffee and a pen and a paper and be working on this as it goes.

But science is incremental.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it — does the work you do also tell you how much damage it is doing or can do?

CHRIS REDDY: So, when you want to think about damages to the wildlife, it’s often thought about in a simple way as to the concentration of certain compounds and durations, how long something may be exposed to. And those are numbers that have to be put into the — and the calculus of it has to be worked out. And that’s part of the natural resource damage assessment. It’s not easy. There’s nothing really easy in this spill.

JEFFREY BROWN: David, what else is going on to determine the level of — the level of damage or possible damage?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Well, there’s a huge government effort going on right now that is trying to determine sort of the writ large damage to the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem. That’s going to be used down the road in terms of how much punishment BP faces.

A lot of other scientists are looking at marshlands and crabs and all kinds of other creatures around that Gulf. One of the hardest pieces of this, though — as difficult as it is to find what’s going on in tiny crabs that live in a marsh in Louisiana, think about how difficult it is to understand what these plumes or dispersed amounts of oil are doing thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf, where they would be affecting things like whales and squid, deepwater coral, things that scientists have trouble seeing even in the best of circumstances.

It’s very hard to understand what this dispersed oil might be doing in those places. That, to me, is one — has always been one of the big questions about the impact of this spill, and it continues to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, David, just very briefly, I assume that this also really matters because of the question of paying for and eventually dealing with the problem overall.

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Of course, and that’s a difficult question no matter what.

But you’re going to see in the next few years the government trying to get some sort of money back from BP for the damage. But you’re also going to see people trying to figure out, well, what did it do to the shrimp industry? What did it do to the red snapper industry? Are those people owed some kind of compensation by BP?

I mean, this is a very complicated system. It would have been a complicated situation no matter what, even if all the oil had floated on the surface, like we thought. Now that the oil is beneath the surface, it makes it so much harder to even begin to understand what it did to the Gulf, and it would be hard even in a couple years to know that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Fahrenthold and Chris Reddy, thank you both very much.

CHRIS REDDY: Thank you.