BP Says 'Static Kill' Is Complete
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
BP's blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico is now filled with heavy fluid and that has effectively shut off the flow of oil up from the reservoir more than two miles below the seabed. Today at the White House, National Incident Commander Thad Allen had this to say about the events of the past 24 hours.
Admiral THAD ALLEN (National Incident Commander): It's a consequential day. We've significantly reduced the threat of hydrocarbons into the environment that have plagued us for a long, long time.
NORRIS: The federal government also issued a report today that tries to account for the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled into the Gulf following the Deepwater Horizon disaster on April 20th. That report leaves a lot of questions. First and foremost, just how much of that oil is still lingering in the marshes and the deeper waters of the Gulf?
NPR's Richard Harris has the story.
RICHARD HARRIS: This morning, before the report was released, White House energy aide Carol Browner made the rounds of the morning TV shows. There she boasted that the oil was largely taken care of and no longer a big threat to the coastlines. Here she is on NBC's "Today Show."
(Soundbite of TV show, "Today Show")
Ms. CAROL BROWNER (White House Energy Aide): More than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone. It was captured, it was skimmed, it was burned, it was contained. Mother Nature did her part and that's good news.
HARRIS: Good news if you forget for a moment that even one-quarter of the oil from the spill still represents about five Exxon Valdezes worth. But it turns out the actual report issued later in the morning isn't nearly so upbeat. At a White House briefing, government scientist Jane Lubchenco dialed back the success figure from Browner's 75 percent.
Ms. JANE LUBCHENCO (NOAA): At least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system. And most of the remainder is degrading rapidly or is being removed from the beaches.
HARRIS: So that means there are about 10 Exxon Valdezes' worth of oil that could be out in the Gulf. This includes oil that's on the marshes, buried under the sand, floating as a light sheen in a few places still, but also a large volume of oil that's still way out deep under the ocean.
Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that oil is now gradually being eaten up by microbes in the Gulf. But the oil that remains can't simply be dismissed.
Ms. LUBCHENCO: Oil that is in microscopic droplets that is still there may be toxic to any of the small creatures under the water that it encounters.
HARRIS: And although it won't be in the water forever, Ira Leifer from the University of California at Santa Barbara expects it will take years for it to disappear.
Professor IRA LEIFER (University of California, Santa Barbara): One would expect that of the oil that was dispersed and dissolved, that probably about five to 10 percent would likely have been biodegraded at this point.
HARRIS: Meaning that 90 percent of it is still there in the water. And while it's great having nature playing a central role in breaking down the oil that's in the water, John Kessler from Texas A&M University says, beware.
Professor JOHN KESSLER (Texas A&M University): It's kind of a double-edged sword here.
HARRIS: In the process of removing oil from the waters, these microbes also consume large amounts of oxygen. And out in the deep waters of the Gulf where this is going on, Kessler and colleagues are seeing areas where oxygen levels are dropping substantially, say, 20 to 40 percent.
Prof. KESSLER: And while that sounds significant, and it is, harmful effects normally occur once you've got about a two-thirds reduction.
HARRIS: And since there's plenty of oil left yet to be eaten up in the Gulf, those oxygen levels could go lower.
Kessler adds another wrinkle to this. About half the hydrocarbons that came out of the well weren't oil, but in the form of natural gas. And that, too, depletes oxygen.
Prof. KESSLER: This report does not address the gas at all. It doesn't mention it one bit.
HARRIS: And here's something else curious about the report. Despite the very high-profile flotilla of skimmers out in the Gulf of Mexico, the report says they managed to remove a paltry three percent of the oil. Ira Leifer at Santa Barbara has a few ideas about why that's the case.
First of all, he says the widespread use of chemical dispersants at the surface managed to make the oil sink down a few inches or feet below the waterline, which put it out of reach of the skimmers. Leifer says the slicks were also just plain hard to find.
Prof. LEIFER: The spill was so extensive that it was not possible for it to be effectively surveyed on any one day by aircraft to spot where to direct skimmers. And currently, the satellite platforms are not able to tell anyone where thick oil is, as opposed to where a thin sheen is.
HARRIS: National Incident Commander Thad Allen agrees that there are important lessons yet to be learned from the way they attacked the spill, including hard questions about the interplay of dispersants and skimmers.
Adm. ALLEN: I think when we're all done, we're going to have to go back and say, moving forward as we create an inventory of response tools, what really served us best in this response.
HARRIS: One lesson we've already learned is that it's dangerous to declare victory too soon. So Allen keeps stressing that the situation with the well won't be fully in hand until the well is plugged with cement, and that's likely to be a few weeks away.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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