University of Georgia administrators and scientists seem more mystified than offended by an oil company executive's claim that massive undersea oil plumes discovered by a UGA-led research team don't exist.
A University of Georgia-led research team has reported huge plumes of oil deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, but BP CEO Tony Hayward, here visiting a Coast Guard command center in Venice, La., on Sunday, has denied the plumes exist.
Unlike any big oil spill in the past, scientists say they have found oil not only on the surface of the water around the Deepwater Horizon, a broken oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, but also oil suspended in the water deep below the surface, drifting slowly in miles-long plumes.
CEO Tony Hayward of BP, the company responsible for the spill, flatly denied Sunday that the plumes are real, however. On Tuesday, a company spokesman said the company remains unconvinced.
"I can only tell you what we're finding, and these plumes DO contain oil and methane gas. Concentrations are highest near the leaking wellhead and they decrease with distance away from 'ground zero,' " UGA marine scientist Samantha Joye said in an e-mail from the Gulf of Mexico, where she is on a research vessel tracking one of the largest plumes and taking samples for analysis.
Scientists on a multiuniversity research team led by Joye found the first plume in early May, a couple of weeks after the drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Ever since, the broken well has been spewing oil from a mile beneath the ocean surface.
The plumes are not pure oil, but oil, methane and other organic chemicals suspended in sea water, Joye explained. She also is blogging from the trip at http://gulfblog.uga.edu.
"Water from the plumes smells like petroleum; you can see oil on the filter after you filter the water; and the plume waters contain 100-1,000 times more methane gas as well as higher-deep reservoir derived hydrocarbon gases than waters above and below the plumes," she said.
But the top executive of BP this week said the scientists are wrong.
"The oil is on the surface. There aren't any plumes," Hayward said earlier this week.
"I think he's wrong about that," said William Miller, a UGA marine scientist who is helping analyze the chemical properties of the plumes.
Normally, oil floats to the surface of water, but massive quantities of dispersants - much like soap - that BP engineers pumped into the spill deep below the surface has kept much of the oil suspended in the water, said Miller, associate director of UGA's School of Marine Programs and director of the university's Marine Institute.
"The oil is in such small droplets that it can stay in solution," he said. "That plume is down there because of those dispersants."
Joye's team is not the only independent research team that has seen the plumes, noted David Lee, UGA's vice president for research.
Scientists from Louisiana State University, the University of South Florida and other research universities say they have found other plumes, one 22 miles long and six miles wide.
"What the plumes are composed of and what they mean for the Gulf are the focus of their ongoing research. Hopefully, we'll know more very soon," Lee said.
Peter Galvin, conservation director of the Center for Biological Diversity, was less diplomatic in his assessment of Hayward's denial that the plumes exist.
The center revealed that BP was allowed to begin drilling on the Deepwater Horizon without going through a required environmental review, and that the U.S. Department of the Interior continued to grant similar waivers to allow more offshore drilling, even after Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said he had ordered a halt.
"This is the same guy (Hayward) who waited several days after the spill before he began to tell anybody the spill existed. This is the guy who said at first it was a small amount. Every single statement this man has made since this incident began has turned out to be patently incorrect," Galvin said.