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Environment

Scientist Smackdown: How Much of BP's Oil Is Left in the Gulf?

80beatsBy Andrew MosemanFebruary 23, 2011 3:59 AM

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As BP's oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico week after week last summer, we got accustomed to wildly different estimates for how quickly the oil was leaking and how much entered the gulf. Now, 10 months after the mess began, government and independent scientists have wildly different estimates for how much of the oil remains. Oceanographer Samantha Joye, speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington this weekend, revealed the findings of her trips to the Gulf to study the seafloor. In December she dove to areas around the site of BP's well blowout, finding—and photographing—layers of gunky hydrocarbons. The oil was up to inches thick in places.

"Magic microbes consumed maybe 10 percent of the total discharge, the rest of it we don't know," Joye said, later adding: "there's a lot of it out there." [AP]

To explain how so much oil got down to the seafloor, Joye's team did an experiment when they got back to the lab. Joye put a dab of oil from the BP well into a vial of water taken from nearby in the Gulf, then watched.

After just one day, naturally occurring microbes in the water began growing on the oil. After a week, the cells formed blobs, held together by spit, that were so heavy they began sinking to the bottom of a jar. Two weeks later, large streamers of microbial slime and cells were evident. Brown dots visible inside the mix were emulsified oil. “This is the mechanism that we propose deposited oil to the [Gulf’s] bottom,” Joye said. [Science News]

Joye's 10 percent estimation is a huge departure from the one made this weekend by Jane Lubchenco

, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The head of the agency in charge of the health of the Gulf said Saturday that she thought that "most of the oil is gone." And a Department of Energy scientist, doing research with a grant from BP from before the spill, said his examination of oil plumes in the water column show that microbes have done a "fairly fast" job of eating the oil. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab scientist Terry Hazen said his research differs from Joye's because they looked at different places at different times. [AP]

Where Joye looked, though, both the presence of oil

and the toll on life were clear.

She often saw dead corals, crabs and sea stars in the affected seafloor areas. Absent were sea cucumbers that are normally abundant in parts of the Gulf where natural petroleum seeps occur. Damage was also evident above the seafloor: Mortality in free-floating jellyfish and sea squirts proved especially high, Joye said. And some worms had become nothing more than hollow tubes filled with the slimy goop that chemical fingerprinting methods would later show had contained BP oil. [Science News]

While oceanographers argue over how much oil remains, BP is slogging through the process of settling its legal responsibilities. Fund manager Ken Feinberg made his offer this week.

Finally, nearly 500,000 people with claims know Feinberg's final formula. With proper documentation, BP will write most of them a check for twice their losses for 2010. Oystermen will get four times their losses. Accept, and they agree not to sue BP. [CBS News]

It's now up to them to settle or sue. Related Content: 80beats: Massive Coral Die-Off Found Just 7 Miles from BP Oil Spill Site

80beats: Good News: Bacteria Ate All the Deepwater Horizon Methane

80beats: BP Report on Gulf Disaster Spreads the Blame Around

80beats: Scientists Find 22-Mile-Long Oily Plume Drifting in the Gulf of Mexico

80beats: Gulf Coast Turtle News: No More Fiery Death; Relocating 70,000 Eggs

Image: University of Georgia / Samantha Joye

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