Oil layers below Gulf's surface may be cleanup challenge

McClatchy NewspapersJune 8, 2010 

Researchers have confirmed that oil is floating as deep as 3,300 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico in layers that may pose unprecedented challenges to efforts to clean up the effects of the spewing BP Deepwater Horizon well.

Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said oil in "very low concentrations" was found 40 miles northeast of the well and also 142 nautical miles southeast of the well. It was not clear whether the oil found to the southeast came from the well however; Lubchenco said the oil was "not consistent" with the BP spill, but a scientist involved in collecting the samples said only that the concentrations were too small to determine the oil's source.

“We know there is some oil at depth in layers. We don’t know its origin, its extent. The layers are definitely oil. The origins are less clear,” said Ernst Peebles, a University of South Florida scientist who was aboard NOAA's R/V Weatherbird II when it sampled Gulf waters May 23-26.

The subsurface oil could prove to be a challenge to clean up efforts. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Tuesday that the Coast Guard had little experience in cleaning up oil suspended in the water.

"We have not generally done subsurface response" to an oil spill, Allen said, except in instances where heavy oil has sunk to the seafloor. "In my on personal experience, I have not dealt with it."

Allen said the Coast Guard would have to do research to know what could be done to respond to the subsurface oil.

Scientists also don't know what the impact of the subsurface oil might have on sealife, Lubchenco said.

"It's in low concentration," she said. "That does not mean it doesn't have significant impact. The impact that it has we remain to understand."

The confirmation of the presence of comes after weeks of speculation since scientists aboard another research vessel reported the discovery of plumes of oil floating throughout the Gulf.

Scientists aboard the Weatherbird II also found oil "mousse," the now infamous brown or orange substance seen primarily along the surface of the Gulf from Louisiana to Florida, as deep as 10 feet below the surface, Ernst and NOAA scientist Steven Murawski told reporters in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The announement of the test results came as Allen said he had renewed efforts to get a better handle on how much oil is spewing from the wellhead.

A member of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group told McClatchy Monday that he believed that the well could now be spewing as much as 100,000 barrels a day, a flow rate that likely was increased when BP severed the well's riser pipeline above the dysfuntional blowout preventer.

Allen said he'd asked the flow rate panel, composed of experts from both universities and the government, to reexamine the question of how much oil is flowing from the pipe and "give us a revised total flow rate pre-riser cut, post riser cut."

Allen said he would look into complaints from some members of the panel that BP had not provided video tapes and other data they felt was needed to accurately assess the oil well's flow.

He also acknowledged that he had personally intervened with BP CEO Tony Hayward in what he called "several very frank conversations" about the company's reluctance to show live video of the top kill procedure last month. That effort failed to stanch the well's gusher.

"It's actually been the pressure we've placed on BP that's kept those videos coming," he said.

Allen said the containment cap, put in place last week, captured 14,842 barrels in a 24-hour period, an amount just below the 15,000-barrel capacity of the ship processing the oil on the Gulf's surface. A second ship should be at the site in the next two to three days that will raise the capacity to 20,000 barrels a day, and BP is in the process of installing a larger production facility to handle the spill, Allen said.

Allen also bristled as the suggestion of a reporter that he and other Obama administration officials have implied that the response is going well, despite the lack of enough ships to collect the oil and their lack of knowledge of how much oil is being spilled.

"I have never said this is going well," Allen said. "We're throwing everything we've got. This is the largest oil spill respose in the history of this country. . . . We're making no illusions that this is anthing other than a catastrophe and we're addressing it as such and we'll continue to do that."

(Lebovich, of the Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Jones, of the Bradenton Herald, reported from Bradenton, Fla.)

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