BP Oil Spill: Scientists Refute Obama's 3-Year Cleanup Prediction
Policy + Politics

BP Oil Spill: Scientists Refute Obama's 3-Year Cleanup Prediction

Just one day after President Obama said that the U.S. could “potentially preserve” the Gulf Coast estuaries and marshes “so that, three years from now, things have come back,” a panel of ocean specialists strongly disputed that time frame, calling the 36-month prediction “wildly optimistic.”  Obama made the statement in an interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show.

The scientists, who were in Washington, D.C. Tuesday to mark World Ocean Day, said the current oil spill is “basically a [science] experiment.”  They painted a gloomy portrait of the disaster in the Gulf, stressing that much of their commentary was speculation, “since we don’t know the volumes of oil lost or how long the spill will continue.” 

The group included Celine Cousteau, conservationist and granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau; Thomas Shirley, a specialist in marine biodiversity with the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies; and Robert Twilley, director of wetland biochemistry and professor of oceanography and coastal science at Louisiana State University. Cousteau said the occasion “would have been a terrific opportunity to celebrate positive achievements, but unfortunately we’re here to talk about the Gulf oil spill instead.”

"There are still 21,000 gallons of oil in the sub-tidal beaches of Alaska,
in Prince William Sound, having huge effects on seabirds, fish and mammals."

Addressing the long-term recovery prospects for the region’s marshlands, Shirley said, “I worked on the Exxon Valdez and lived in Alaska for 20 years. I worked on the project about 10 years after the spill. There are still 21,000 gallons of oil in the sub-tidal beaches of Alaska, in Prince William Sound. It’s still having great effects on seabirds, fish and mammals. And that was a very different circumstance—it was on the surface. That was like a heart attack with 11 million gallons at once.” Here, in the Gulf of Mexico, he said ruefully, “We don’t really know how long things are going to last.”

LSU’s Twilley told The Fiscal Times after the meeting that the ongoing concern about dispersants and their effects was “one of our most important learning curves. The other is the public health factor of people working on the surface. Everyone knows the tradeoffs.” Regarding the loop current, which swirls up through the Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic Gulf stream, he said, “It is a transport mechanism for all the activities. So no matter what state we’re from, we are all in this together. These loop currents and ocean environments bring us all together under one home.”

Caws of the Wild
Meanwhile, experts from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology stressed that long-term habitat recovery efforts will be crucial in affected areas. “Rescuers can reach only a fraction of the oiled birds, and those that do receive treatment face a contaminated environment after they’re released,” said Ken Rosenberg, director of Conservation Science at Cornell. “It’s critical to make sure that funding for cleanup covers not just short-term rescue efforts, but restoration of critical nesting sites and long-term recovery of the entire ecosystem, which is far more expensive and difficult.”

He said that numerous birders have been “playing a key role in documenting birds in the path of the oil spill.” Since May 4, birders in Gulf Coast states have submitted more than 100,000 observations to www.ebird.org, which is tracking bird numbers and recording data for recovery efforts.

The BP Option: 10¢ on the Dollar
BP has pledged to cover all costs associated with the spill, including government efforts. While some estimates put BP’s cleanup and reparations tab at close to $40 billion, speculation about bankruptcy is in the air.  In his New York Times column yesterday, Andrew Ross Sorkin said, “the idea that BP might one day file for bankruptcy, particularly as part of a merger that would enable it to cordon off its liabilities from the spill, is starting to percolate on Wall Street.”

In Tuesday afternoon trading, BP’s shares fell $2.22, or 6 percent, to $34.53. Adding saltwater to BP’s wounds, Goldman Sachs reported that the deepwater drilling moratorium could go on for as long as a year.

With additional reporting by Michelle Hirsch.

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