August Oil Report Was Right, Says NOAA


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday released new documentation that largely affirmed the much-criticized oil budget report the agency released in August. The oil spill budget from August 4, which offered estimates on where the 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled from BP’s Gulf well had gone, was largely accurate in its assessment, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told reporters.

The final figures are “quite close to those created in the heat of the response,” said Lubchenco, which is “a compliment to those who worked under an immense amount of pressure.” She said that the original report was intended to guide responders in clean-up efforts. The “sole purpose was to inform the responders,” she said. “It does not tell us where the oil is today, or its final fate, or what the impact of the oil was.”

The latest figures—which she said have been peer reviewed—updated some numbers from their August tally. The new report says that 16 percent of the oil had been chemically dispersed as of August. Another 13 percent had been dispersed naturally, 23 percent of it had evaporated or dissolved, and another 23 percent was unaccounted for—meaning it was at or near the surface of the water, washed up on beaches, or otherwise still somewhere out in the Gulf. Lubchenco noted that there is still a good deal of uncertainty with some of those figures. The report was compiled by scientists from NOAA, the US Geological Survey, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The update comes several months after the August report was strongly criticized for several reasons. One, senior White House officials erroneously touted it as evidence that the oil was “gone” when in fact it showed that nearly three-quarters of it was still in the environment. A draft report from the Oil Spill Commission also criticized the Obama administration for misrepresenting the oil spill budget in the press. NOAA was also criticized for releasing the August report without any of the documentation or mathematical calculations that went into creating it.

Lubchenco was criticized for wrongly claiming that the original document had undergone “peer-review” in a press conference. Lubchenco took the blame for that in the call Tuesday. “That report was not peer-reviewed, and I was in error,” said Lubchenco.

But she said the latest report largely validates what the first budget found. It “pretty much says that the initial calculations were by and large correct,” she said, which is “primarily a reflection of the quality of work that went into the original report.”

It’s important to note that today’s updated figures are a more refined and peer-reviewed version of the report issued in August, not a statement on how much oil is left today and where it is currently. Lubchenco said additional studies on the fate of the oil and its impacts are forthcoming.

She said that “comprehensive and extensive monitoring” is underway to assess how much oil remains and where it is now, and 125 expeditions have taken samples to assess the state of the Gulf. Some independent studies have found oil in undersea plumes or on the floor of the Gulf.

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  • Kate Sheppard was a staff reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau from 2009 to 2013. She is now a senior reporter and the energy and environment editor at The Huffington Post. She can be reached by email at kate (dot) sheppard (at) huffingtonpost (dot) com and you can follow her on Twitter @kate_sheppard.