Fuzzy Numbers on the Oil Budget

The good news about the capping, mud injection and now cementing of the Deepwater Horizon well is being undercut by some overly rosy projections by the federal government about the fate of the BP oil. NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco unveiled her “oil budget” yesterday at the White House, along with President Obama’s environment advisor Carol Browner and on-scene commander Adm. Thad Allen. Lubchenco said only 26 percent of the oil is left unaccounted for, and that oil is breaking down naturally in the environment – either small droplets underwater or in tarballs on the beach. Here’s my report on the announcement for Discovery News. The problem is that many scientists believe the report relies on overly optimistic estimates of this dispersed oil. They also point out that NOAA made a big blunder when this spill was in its early days but estimating the spill at 5,000 barrels a day, a figure later revised to 62,000 barrels per day. Florida State’s Ian MacDonald told me that NOAA officials also denied the existence of underwater oil plumes for weeks after independent scientists complained, and even after these plumes were discovered miles from the site. University of Georgia’s Dr. Mandy Joye told the New York Times this morning that the NOAA report that “if an academic scientist put something like this out there, it would get torpedoed into a billion pieces.” Lubchenco acknowledged that the “oil spill calculator” was based on assumptions and extrapolations, rather than direct measurement. BP lawyers may now be using these same numbers as the opening salvo in a likely court case over the billions of dollars in damages they owe. The report – accurate or not – has big implications for the Gulf ecosystem, US taxpayers and Gulf Coast residents.

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