Back when 50 Million Gallons Was A Disaster

08/20/2010 01:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogIn recent weeks, the Gulf oil spill story line has dramatically turned in BP’s favor. “The oil is gone” “There’s no longer a slick” are some of the repeated lines from media coverage. The White House even claims that 75% of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that gushed unabated from the Macondo Well is gone, that only 25% or 50 million gallons of oil is still out in the Gulf.  However rosy a picture the White House and BP wants to paint, 50 million gallons is still a lot of oil. In fact it’s more than four Exxon Valdez spills and 21 years later, oil is still affecting the fishing industry and health of the cleanup workers.

Thankfully the scientists are weighing in this week with three studies refuting the “oil is gone” theory. On Monday, researchers in Georgia said “as much as 80 percent of the oil from the spill remains in the Gulf.” On Tuesday scientists from the University of South Florida found “that a lot of crude is lurking deep below the surface, some of it settling perhaps in a critical undersea canyon off the Florida Panhandle.” Tomorrow Science will publish a paper by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who “have detected a plume of hydrocarbons that is at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, a residue of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

I’m not a scientist, but I believe this means there’s more oil out there than BP and the White House would like you to believe, a lot of it is either settling on the floor of the ocean or compiling these enormous underwater plumes, once measuring the size of Manhattan, and closing in on the Florida coast.

Let’s consider the amount of oil still at large in the Gulf. If you believe the White House report, they claim only 25% or 50 million gallons of oil are unaccounted for in the burning, skimming, collection and general degradation of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that escaped. If you believe the Georgian scientists, that’s 80% or more than 150 million gallons of the oil still unaccounted for, a much more sinister amount that will no doubt cause more devastation to the Gulf than the White House 25% figure. So what does the low-balled 50 million gallons look like?

What 50 Million Gallons Looks Like

In early June, BP was still stone-walling scientists, the government and the public on just how much oil was pouring into the Gulf. We know now that the BP disaster ultimately unleashed 209 million gallons of oil into the Gulf over 100 days, resulting in a shocking 19 Exxon Valdez size oil spills.

By June 11, two months after the disaster started, reports were surfacing from scientists confirming that BP had repeatedly under-reported the volume of oil escaping the failed well head. At that point, 50 days into the disaster, when 50 million gallons of oil seemed catastrophic, some of the first heart wrenching photos emerged, showing Gulf wildlife trapped in sticky swaths of oil, with only their eyes visible. This is also the period when aerial photographers shot powerful images documenting oil sheens as far as the eye could see, in thick tendrils the color of the rainbow.

The situation in the Gulf would ultimately go on to get worse until the well was finally capped in early August. The well itself is still awaiting a final kill from relief wells that took more than 90 days to drill. The fact that 50 million gallons of oil are not seen on the surface of the sea does not mean that the problem is solved. This is what BP wants us to believe. This is what more than two million gallons of chemical dispersant pumped into and on the surface the Gulf waters has done.  

Damage is Done

We still don’t know the extent of the damage that amount of dispersant used under water will mean to the sea life that comes into contact with it or whether the oil and dispersant cocktail will become a bioaccumulation problem we’ll be testing for over the next several years and whether that toxicity will destroy the Gulf fishing industry. The dispersants did not cause the oil to disappear from the water column, but may have allowed the oil to sink to the Gulf floor, where it will surround sea life, be perpetually churned up, resurface or be consumed.

To the people of the Gulf one gallon of oil spilled is too much and is an unnecessary disaster causing unique harm to them simply because they live next to an oil and gas playground. This is one of the worst economical and environmental disasters in our history and it could have been prevented. We were told by oil and gas companies that a disaster of this magnitude could never happen, but it did. The technology was fail safe, but it wasn’t.

Thousands of people are out of work and BP is scaling back their clean up operations because workers in bright yellow hazmat suits will only remind the public that the Gulf disaster is ongoing and cleanup will take years. Out of sight, out of mind is what BP wants us to believe so they can get back to drilling new wells in the Gulf, promising it won’t happen again.