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NOAA Distances Itself from Scientists’ Claims of Underwater Gulf Oil Plumes

I don’t know whether this is good or bad news. Last weekend, the New York Times quoted several ocean scientists collecting samples in the area of the BP oil disaster to the effect that there could be large plumes of oil at various depths below the Gulf surface.

Today, however, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a disclaimer, stating they had no confirmation and claiming "media reports" were "misleading." From the NOAA press release:

"Media reports related to the research work conducted aboard the R/V Pelican included information that was misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate. Yesterday the independent scientists clarified three important points:

1. No definitive conclusions have been reached by this research team about the composition of the undersea layers they discovered. Characterization of these layers will require analysis of samples and calibration of key instruments. The hypothesis that the layers consist of oil remains to be verified.

2. While oxygen levels detected in the layers were somewhat below normal, they are not low enough to be a source of concern at this time.

3. Although their initial interest in searching for subsurface oil was motivated by consideration of subsurface use of dispersants, there is no information to connect use of dispersants to the subsurface layers they discovered.

NOAA thanks the Pelican scientists and crew for repurposing their previously scheduled mission to gather information about possible impacts of the BP oil spill. We eagerly await results from their analyses and share with them the goal of disseminating accurate information.

NOAA continues to work closely with EPA and the federal response team to monitor the presence of oil and the use of surface and sub-surface dispersants. As we have emphasized, dispersants are not a silver bullet. They are used to move us towards the lesser of two environmental outcomes. Until the flow of oil is stemmed, we must take every responsible action to reduce the impact of the oil.”

Well, great. We either have a group of irresponsible scientists who are the only ones reporting and possibly the only ones in the region doing onsite research on the possible composition of plumes near the well, or we have a very politically compromised NOAA trying to manage public concerns. Because if you read the Times story, the "media reports" being blamed here consisted of quotes from the scientists.

What the NOAA statement doesn’t tell us:

1. What, if any, direct collection of under/deep-water samples in the vicinity have been taken or are being taken? What do those samples, show? Who is doing this?

2. If NOAA is still waiting to see analysis of the scientists’ test samples, what is the basis for NOAA’s claims that levels of oxygen are not low enough to be a basis for concern?

3. What is the basis for the EPA/NOAA assumption that massive use of deepwater dispersants is an acceptable tradeoff against impacts from surface levels?

4. Is it true that the dispersants EPA permitted BP to use have been shown to have worse toxicity and less effectiveness than available alternative dispersants, and if so, why is the BP choice accepted under any rational environmental regime? Has BP’s corporate relationship with the chosen dispersant manufacturer played a role in allowing this choice?

5. What steps is NOAA or anyone else within US government taking to account for the huge discrepancies between the "official" estimates of the flow rates and the much larger rates estimated by several different, independent scientists? Is there a large quantity of oil "missing" and unaccounted for, or isn’t there? And what is the government doing to sort that out?

It may be that NOAA is one of the more trusted entities is this saga, and that all we have here is an effort to make sure the media does not get ahead of the known facts. Fine. But government oversight of a powerful industry has clearly failed because of pervasive industry capture, and that failure has embarrassed the Administration and undermined it’s announced pro-industry policies. "Trust us" doesn’t get it, and it never should.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley