In its quest to put the oil spill in the rear view mirror before the mid-term elections, the Obama administration just put out a report claiming that only 26 percent of the 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons) of oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico remains intact on or just below the surface.
Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proudly boasted that “A significant amount of this is a direct result of the very robust federal response efforts.”
Clearly the administration’s goal is to convince voters that it has done a good job and the worst of the oil spill is now behind us.
President Obama, citing both the “static kill” of the well and the report, proclaimed that the long battle with the spill was “finally close to coming to an end.”
At face value this seems like very good news, even though 26 percent is still over 50 million gallons of oil—five times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez.
Unfortunately, anyone who carefully examines the report will find that the real picture is a great deal murkier.
According to the report just 25 percent of the oil has actually been diverted, collected or otherwise destroyed (see “Oil Budget Chart” below) by that “robust” federal response. The remaining 75% is actually unaccounted for and remains on or below the water’s surface, buried in marsh and beach sediments, or has evaporated.
According to the Washington Post, scientists involved in producing the report said its figures were largely based on assumptions and estimates that carry a significant margin of error.
The Post article quotes Ian MacDonald, a professor of biological oceanography at Florida State University, who points out that the report contains a lot of “smoke and mirrors” and adds “It seems very reassuring, but the data aren’t there to actually bear out the assurances that were made.”
One person who is tickled pink about the report is radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Shortly after oil started gushing into the gulf, Limbaugh claimed it was nothing to worry about because “It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”
He seized on the Obama administration’s assessment and proclaimed “The greatest environmental disaster ever — wasn’t, just as El Rushbo told you.” He added “I’d say that Mother Earth just beach-slapped the Democrats and the media.”
For anyone who wants to see new safeguards on drilling, stronger oversight of the oil industry and common sense limits on where drilling is allowed, they should be concerned that the administration’s rush to judgment could serve to undermine those objectives.
While the White House took great pains to claim this is not a “mission accomplished” moment, it certainly seems like one.
What else would you call crowing about a “robust federal response” that was characterized by one failure after another and has left 75 percent of the oil spilled for nature to deal with?
The ecological and economic impacts on the Gulf Coast of this unprecedented oil spill have been severe, and it is a fool’s errand to downplay the potential for lasting and long-term consequences—especially for what appears to be purely political reasons.