Note: Marcy Wheeler has been called away but asked me to write up something one of her commenters found. It’s a presentation by an MMS official, who worked for "retiring" MMS head Chris Oynes, describing a "field test" the industry performed on the possibility of a deepwater blowout. View the presentation.

As we watch newly released videos of the massive quantities of oil and gas gushing from the BP oil disaster, more attention will be focused on learning where the oil is and where it’s going. It turns out the Minerals Management Service (MMS) had long ago thought about this problem and conducted a "field test" 10 years ago to determine what might happen. Their finding: the oil could form underwater plumes that drift below the surface unseen.

On Saturday, a group of scientists suggested they’d found evidence much of the oil might be forming huge subsurface plumes, possibly miles across, which might be drifting with the current by remaining mostly underwater. But by Monday, the head of NOAA, responsible for overseeing studies of oceanic impacts downplayed that speculation as "premature," accusing the media of getting ahead of the facts. And the scientists who until then had been happy to talk to the media suddenly went silent, leaving us to wonder why.

The presentation tells an interesting story.

Ten years ago, MMS engaged industry in a field test of what might happen in a deepwater blowout. The idea of a field test arose in 1997, when MMS and the industry realized three things: (1) an increasing proportion of all off-shore extraction would occur in deeper and deeper water, (2) there was a significant risk of a deepwater blowout, so they better plan for it; (3) there was insufficient understanding of how the released oil and gas would behave at such depths and under the pressure/temperature conditions existing at various depths.

The designers of the field test put together an industry consortium with everyone chipping in money and equipment. They would create an artificial blowout in deep water, releasing volumes of oil and gas at the ocean floor and then observe and measure the effects.

A hypothesis was formulated on what would likely occur given what was known about oil/gas characteristics the likely pressures and tempertures, and the force/quantity of the release from the blow out location. The field test would then see if this occurred.

As the presentation seems to show, this theory predicted that the released oil/gas might not immediately rise to the surface but would instead become trapped, at least temporarily in large plumes below the ocean surface level, suspended at a "neutral buoyancy point" defined by the oil/gas characteristics, the pressure and temperature and the rate at which it became associated with sea water. The expected plume would drift with the current, but small droplets would gradually break off and rise to the surface where it would be observed there. [See slide 7]

The test was conducted in June 2000, and the results deemed successful. The presentation seems to suggest the theory was "validated." [Slides 8 and 13]

So the questions MMS needs to answer are, what did they learn? And with whom did they share this information? And what did MMS and the industry do about it? How did it change their views of what a contingency blowout plan needed to deal with, and how did it change their environmental impact assessments and efficacy of mitigation measures?

And what does this tell us about the government’s disclosures now regarding the possibility of plume formation? The MMS employee who prepared the presentation worked for the the #2 guy at MMS — he’s on his way out the door — but he should have been aware of the scenario and the possibility of a below-surface plume in the event of a deepwater blowout.

So given MMS’s knowledge, has anyone in the US government been advising researchers that undersea plumes are what we should be looking for? Because when the Pelican scientists reportedly found some confirmation, senior officials didn’t say, "yeah, we’ve been looking for that, because there’s this theory we’ve had for a decade, but we still need to confirm the data before being sure." Instead, they told us, "the media is printing phony stories and we need to tell our scientists to stop talking to them."

I think they owe us a few answers, please?

Update: MMS maintains a website homepage containing documents describing the test and its results. (h/t commenter cobernicus, comments 25, 26)


NYT: Scientists warn oil spill could threaten Florida
HuffPost/Dan Froomkin: Govt remains blind to underwater oil hazard

MMS Powerpoint Presentation

"Meeting the Challenge of Deepwater Spills: Cooperative Research Efforts Between Industry and Government"



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