We reported last month that the natural gas that escaped from BP's well is the colorless, odorless villain in the Gulf, one that hasn't gotten the attention that all that crude has received. Now several conservation groups are asking the attorney general to include natural gas as it determines exactly how much BP has to pay up for polluting the Gulf.
The National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council sent a letter to Eric Holder Wednesday asking him to include gas in the total tally of hydrocarbons released into the Gulf. Even if BP is still being cagey about the amount of crude dumped from its well, the government has estimated that upwards of 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled. Roughly forty percent of what was spewing out of that well was actually natural gas, mostly methane, and if you included the oil and gas in the total, it would be more like 6 million barrels. The groups raised concerns that the gas could be harmful to fish and other marine life.
The Oil Spill Pollution Act, passed in 1990 following the Exxon Valdez, amended the Clean Water Act to levy a fine of $1,000 to $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled. The groups argue that the gas should also be included in the assessment of fines in the BP disaster. That starts to add up; if investigators determine that it was BP's negligence that caused the spill, the company could owe as much as $25.8 billion in Clean Water Act fines alone.
"While it will take time to fully understand the effects of the Gulf disaster, we're deeply concerned about hydrocarbon gas discharge because so much of it will dissolve into the water before reaching the surface," said Dr. Ian MacDonald, professor of oceanography at Florida State University.