The US government performed an incredible magic trick last week—it made four million barrels of oil “disappear” into the ocean.
It says three quarters of the oil that has leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since the start of the BP oil disaster has been recovered, burned off, skimmed, evaporated, dissolved or dispersed chemically—or “naturally”.
White House energy adviser Carol Browner says the spill has been “taken care of by Mother Nature”, while government boffins claim the ocean is full of microbes that are “eating” the oil.
There’s only one problem—scientist after scientist has said that the report’s figures don’t add up. John Kessler of Texas A&M University says the 75 percent figure is “just not true”.
“The fact is that 50 percent to 75 percent of the material that came out of the well is still in the water… just in a dissolved or dispersed form,” he said.
“There’s some science here, but mostly it’s spin,” said oceanographer Ian MacDonald of Florida State University. “I’m afraid this continues a track record of doubtful information.”
Even the report’s own authors call it “educated guesses”—despite the fact that its figure of 4.1 million barrels spilled will be crucial when it comes to deciding how much to fine BP for the disaster.
It could be fined $1,100 for each barrel of oil in the ocean, the standard rate under US law, or the far higher “negligence rate” of $4,300 per barrel.
But Browner refuses to say if BP will be made to pay the higher rate—which would make the total come to $17.6 billion.
Both BP and the government are more interested in saying that the crisis is over.
The oil disaster started when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on 20 April, killing 11 workers and blowing a hole in the ocean floor.
Three months on, people are still finding oil on the beaches. Fishing boats return with contaminated catches that can’t be sold. And official figures say 3,606 dead birds and 508 dead endangered sea turtles have been found.
Even the government’s fiddled estimates would mean the amount of oil remaining is five times larger than in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.
Yet it’s not just oil they’ve made “disappear”—it’s also the cleanup workers.
The company says there are now 30,800 people working on the cleanup. Just last month the reported figure was 46,000.
Workers have spoken of mass sackings.
BP is clearly starting to wind down its cleanup operations. It is even removing the boom barriers it was using to try to block the oil from coming onshore.
Leaks say the aim is to get down to a “skeleton crew” by next month.
Meanwhile, two Gulf Coast residents filed a lawsuit against BP last week, alleging that the “toxic” chemicals it is using in the cleanup are causing health problems.
BP has now thrown 1.8 million gallons of its chemical Corexit into the sea—even though its own safety sheet says “no toxicity studies have been conducted on this product”.
The document adds that the substance, which is banned in Britain, “may cause nausea and vomiting [and] can cause chemical pneumonia”.
Scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi found that Corexit has now “probably” entered the food chain, after being absorbed by crabs.
On top of that, a leaked internal BP audit shows that 390 maintenance tasks on the rig were marked as overdue when it exploded.
The task list included repairs to the blowout preventer—the crucial safety device that was supposed to stop oil streaming into the ocean in the event of an accident.
The US government wants to let BP off the hook. But one thing is for sure—the Gulf of Mexico remains an oil-ridden crime scene.