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Where did all the oil go? (Yeah right!)

Where did all the oil go? U.S. press and scientists admit that BP spill is vanishing much faster than expected

Last updated at 2:56 PM on 30th July 2010

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Oil from the well is clearing from the sea surface much faster than scientists expected.

Indeed, some are asking whether the original threat was actually exaggerated.

And just over 100 days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers, the water around the Gulf is almost entirely clear.

The backtracking by the US media in particular stands in stark contrast to the way in which they pursued Mr Hayward in the wake of the spill.

Time Magazine, The Washington Post, the New York Times and Vanity Fair have all now raised the prospect that the much-maligned ex-BP boss may have been right after all.

The disaster led BP to a record £11bn loss, after it set aside £21billion to pay for the clean-up of the Gulf, fines and legal liabilities.

And BP's woes have a direct knock-on affect on ordinary British people with most having pensions which hold the oil giant, always a generous payer of dividends, in their portfolio.

Officials estimate that between 107 million gallons and 184 million gallons spewed into the Gulf before the cap stopped the flow on the 15th July.

A graphic from May 24th which shows the extent of the oil spill around a month after the disaster

A graphic from May 24th which shows the extent of the oil spill around a month after the disaster

By July 26th much of the oil has dispersed either naturally or has been skimmed from the surface

By July 26th much of the oil has dispersed either naturally or has been skimmed from the surface

The permanent solution, using a relief well to fill it in with mud and cement, is still several weeks away.

So far, officials say they have recovered 34.6 million gallons of oily water using skimmer boats and burned about 11.1 million gallons off the ocean's surface.

But the vast majority of the oil still remains unaccounted for.

Marine scientist Ivor van Heerden told Time magazine: 'There's just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster.

'I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we're not seeing catastrophic impacts.There's a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.'

Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, made the decision last week to reopen a third of the 80,000 square miles of federal waters previously closed to fishermen as the threat began to diminish.

She said government and independent scientists have been working hard to figure out where the oil might be, but have not yet worked it out.

Some is still washing up on beaches and in coastal wetlands, but nothing like in the quantities it was a few weeks ago.

Lubchenco, a marine scientist, said the oil was not sinking to the bottom.

‘As far as we can determine it is primarily in the water column itself, not sitting on the seafloor,’ Lubchenco said.

She also said the oil beneath the surface appears to be biodegrading very quickly, which she called a good sign.

Scientists want to know how fast the oil is being eaten by microbes, how fast it is being diluted, whether it is sinking to the bottom and where it is being carried off to.

They warn that large amounts of oil trapped in the subsurface could contaminate the food chain and deplete oxygen.

Dr Simon Boxall, an expert in marine pollution and dispersion at the National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton, said it is not the size of the leak which matters, but where it occurs and what type of oil is involved.

He told the Telegraph: ‘When Tony Hayward said it was a drop in the ocean, it might have been the wrong thing to say at the time, but it was the truth.

‘This spill is the equivalent of less than a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. For all but a tiny bit of the Gulf, it will be back to normal within a year.

‘The beaches will be normal before Christmas, fishing will be back in two months and the shellfish industry in two years. It's not that the oysters and clams are poisonous, it's just that they won't taste very nice.’

And he said that the steady shipping traffic that fills the Gulf of Mexico mean that the waterway had developed microbes that break down the oil.

‘The Gulf of Mexico is a bit like the River Tyne. There is a lot of industry and boat traffic along it, as well as the oil industry, which has minor leaks all the time,’ he said.

Chemical oceanographer John Kessler from Texas A&M University said that the oil has now broken down.

'What is down there is a smaller particle. You can't think of it as thick, nasty crude.'

Hayward sparked outrage in the US media when he insisted the oil slick and the hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant pumped into the sea to try to disperse it were relatively ‘tiny’ amounts.

‘The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean,’ he said. ‘The volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny.’

Thomas Bianchi, a geochemist and oceanographer at Texas A&M University, said that because the dispersants have pushed oil underwater, scientists may be past the point where they can track it from the air.

'Now it's time to look at the molecular and microbial food web,' he said. 'We may be beyond people in white suits and booms.'

He added: 'There's no way to clean up water at that level in a large basin like the Gulf or these estuaries. You have to live with nature's ability to clean it up.'

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Comment by Vaddix on August 1, 2010 at 2:59am
Just because you cant see it doesn't mean its not there.
Comment by Simmy on July 30, 2010 at 11:45am
The surface oil has been dispersed using chemicals that cause the oil to sink below the surface; and not all or even a majority of the oil ever made it to the surface; it's still floating under it.
A poor attempt to regain their share in the market...B*******!!!

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