Lubchenco Concedes ‘Circumstantial Evidence’ Means Oil Plumes Are ‘Quite Possible’

The foreign oil giant BP has come under withering fire for questioning the existence of vast undersea oil plumes from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP’s skepticism is nearly matched by the federal government’s top ocean official, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the ocean scientist in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), raising more questions about the wisdom of the unnecessary federal collaboration with this environmental criminal.

In a teleconference with reporters, Lubchenco said that numerous teams of ocean scientists have found only “anomalies” that might or might not be oil which might or might not be from the BP disaster. She said that only chemical analysis to fingerprint water samples as being contaminated with the Deepwater Horizon’s oil should be considered confirmation of the plumes. Questioned by the Wonk Room, Lubchenco dismissed the findings of the University of Georgia research vessel Walton Smith team — who took physical samples of water contaminated with oil — as “circumstantial evidence.” After further questioning by Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin, she then conceded:

It is quite possible there is oil under the surface. I think there is reason to believe that may be the case.

Although it is certainly true that chemical analysis of water samples will be definitive, the evidence for these “possible” oil plumes is far stronger than “circumstantial,” as today’s ABC News report about the Walton Smith mission shows:

Lubchenco’s expressed doubt of the existence of oil plumes is consistent with NOAA’s approach to other scientific questions about this environmental calamity. Like BP, she has dismissed the oil entrained in the loop current as a “very small amount of light sheen” which is “likely to be very, very diluted.” Like BP, Lubchenco claimed the 210,000-gallon-a-day guess for flow rate — which was questioned by independent scientists the day it came out on April 28 — was the “best estimate” for an entire month. Eventually NOAA admitted the actual flow rate was at least 240 to 500 percent greater.

Below is a timeline of the scientific research about these undersea plumes:

A 2001 experiment of a deepwater discharge of oil conducted by an industry consortium that included BP found that “a portion of the most toxic compounds is left in the water column.”

An April 26 BP document estimates that “at least half of the oil released” will “evaporate or disperse in the water column.” The document was made public on May 27 after an investigation by House global warming committee chair Ed Markey (D-MA).

On May 6, BP retracted its request that Woods Hole scientist Richard Camilli lead a team to directly measure the undersea plume at the Deepwater Horizon wellhead.

On May 10, the environmental consulting company Applied Science Associates took the NOAA-commissioned research vessel Jack Fitz and found the “presence of oil beneath the surface.” The final laboratory tests were completed Monday but are being held by NOAA.

On May 16, the multi-institution Pelican mission led by Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia and Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi reported plumes based on multiple instruments from 2300 to 4200 feet below sea level, flowing southwest of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead.

On May 25, Good Morning America correspondent Sam Champion and Philippe Cousteau Jr., the chief ocean correspondent for Planet Green, filmed dispersed globules of oil “forming large plumes under the surface of the water as deep as twenty-five feet.”

On May 28, the multi-institution Walton Smith mission led by Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia and Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi detected plumes of suspended oil at three different depths west of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead.

On May 28, the University of South Florida research vessel Weatherbird II mission detected a “6-mile-wide plume of invisible oil” more than two miles below the surface in the DeSoto Canyon, about 20 miles northeast of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. They found the plume guided by computer modeling by USF oceanographer Robert Weisberg.

On May 30, NOAA released a map of a “subsurface plume detected” traveling southwest from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead by the R/V Brooks McCall mission using a CDOM fluorometer.

On May 30, BP CEO Tony Hayward claimed, “The oil is on the surface. There aren’t any plumes.”


Dr. Asper tells the Wonk Room in an email:

The samples from these “features” look like oil and sure smell like oil and of course they fluoresce like oil. But it might be something else. Honestly, we are after the truth so any leads we can get will be greatly appreciated.

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