Did a NOAA scientist “retract” an overoptimistic oil spill report?

Photo by Mindful Walker http://www.flickr.com/photos/27530874@N03/ via flickr

Yesterday, on a story about a Congressional hearing on the progress of oil spill cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico, the Guardian ran the following headline:

BP oil spill: US scientist retracts assurances over success of cleanup

NOAA’s Bill Lehr says three-quarters of the oil that gushed from the Deepwater Horizon rig is still in the Gulf environment while scientists identify 22-mile plume in ocean depths

The story, as do those in the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among others, point out that Lehr’s testimony seemed at odds with the almost celebratory atmosphere surrounding the release of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report two weeks ago, “BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget: What Happened To the Oil?”

The coverage yesterday also noted that other scientists have criticized the report, and that a study in Science this week suggests there’s still an underwater plume of oil in the Gulf.

But did Lehr actually “retract” assurances over the cleanup’s success, or the report itself?

In fact, the report doesn’t provide any assurances. It doesn’t actually say the oil is “gone,” as much of the coverage two weeks ago — apparently taking the White House’s spin at face value — would have you believe. That “gone” comes from how the White House and some reporters interpreted “residual amount.” According to the report:

In summary, it is estimated that burning, skimming and direct recovery from the wellhead removed one quarter (25%) of the oil released from the wellhead. One quarter (25%) of the total oil naturally evaporated or dissolved, and just less than one quarter (24%) was dispersed (either naturally or as a result of operations) as microscopic droplets into Gulf waters. The residual amount — just over one quarter (26%) — is either on or just below the surface as light sheen and weathered tar balls, has washed ashore or been collected from the shore, or is buried in sand and sediments. Oil in the residual and dispersed categories is in the process of being degraded. The report below describes each of these categories and calculations. These estimates will continue to be refined as additional information becomes available.

Take this AP story, which, while actually doing a typically excellent Seth Borenstein job of knocking down inappropriate optimism, sets the scene with “mostly gone” in the headline and lede:

Looking for the oil? NOAA says it’s mostly gone

WASHINGTON — With a startling report that some researchers call more spin than science, the government said Wednesday that the mess made by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is mostly gone already.

So when Lehr told the House subcommittee that “I would say most of that is still in the environment,” that seemed to contradict the “three-quarters gone” claim that was all over the news a few weeks ago.

But it actually doesn’t. Look at the NOAA estimates again: The “residual amount” plus the amounts that were dispersed and evaporated or dissolved add up to 75%. Last time we checked,when something is dispersed, evaporated, or dissolved, it’s still in the environment. It’s not “gone.”

So calling this a retraction — certainly in the scientific sense of retracting a report — seems a bit of a stretch.

We’re not defending NOAA or its report here. (And especially not defending BP.) Rep. Ed Markey  (D-Mass.), who has been a sharp critic of BP and the cleanup, asked Lehr appropriately tough questions about why the agency hasn’t released the data behind their conclusions. Lehr said it was because they wanted to have it peer-reviewed, which would take at least two months, and Markey said that was unacceptable.

It’s not that Markey doesn’t believe in peer review or the scientific process. He got it right when he said it was unreasonable to release conclusions but then refuse to release the underlying data. “You shouldn’t have released it until you knew it was right,” he told Lehr. Without that data, it’s hard to judge the accuracy of the report’s conclusions.

As far as the “retraction,” however, a commenter on the Guardian story may have put it best (edited for grammar):

Basic physics says the oil can’t be gone…The only part of it that has gone was that burnt off  (e=mc2 and all that), the rest is on the sea floor, on the beach, in the atmosphere, on the surface or dispersed through the Gulf of Mexico.

Thanks to Laura Newman for bringing the Guardian story to our attention. As it happens, The Guardian story was the subject of a post on our sister blog, Embargo Watch.

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