Nightly News   |  August 17, 2010

Conflicting reports on oil clean-up

NOAA claims that the vast majority of the oil has either evaporated or been burned, but researchers from the University of Georgia say their calculations don't support that conclusion. Are we getting the truth about the oil spill clean-up? NBC News’ Anne Thompson reports.

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WILLIAMS: Good evening.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We're going to begin here tonight in the Gulf of Mexico , specifically with a reality check on just how much of the oil released into the water from that BP Deepwater Horizon well is still there. As you may know, the government's been reporting that only about 25 percent of the oil from that spill remains. But is that at all accurate, and, in plane English, did anybody really think 90 days worth of crude oil was just somehow slowly vanishing? Our chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson is in Venice , Louisiana , for us once again tonight. Anne , good evening.

ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good evening, Brian . You know, at the heart this is a numbers game. And all sides on this issue admit no one knows for sure exactly how much oil is left in the Gulf of Mexico , but tonight there are clues about where some of it has gone. Pictures of an increasingly blue gulf seem to support this Obama administration claim two weeks ago.

Ms. JANE LUBCHENCO (NOAA Administrator): The vast majority of the oil has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed and recovered from the well head or dispersed.

Mr. CHARLES HOPKINSON (University of Georgia): And that leaves, you know, 70 to 79 percent.

THOMPSON: But today, researchers from the University of Georgia say their calculations don't support that conclusion, in part because they claim oil doesn't break down that fast.

Mr. HOPKINSON: The idea that 75 percent of the oil is gone and is of no further concern to the environment is just absolutely incorrect.

THOMPSON: The Georgia group insists more than half the oil spill , from 2.9 to 3.2 million barrels, is still in the gulf, far more than the nearly 1.3 million barrels the government estimates. Today in a statement, the government defended its oil budget, saying it was based on, quote, "direct measurements whenever possible, and the best available scientific estimates where direct measurements were not possible." So where is the oil? Researchers from the University of South Florida say they found some of it in microscopic droplets, underneath the surface and on the floor of the gulf, in far larger quantities than anticipated and in an area they didn't expect.

Mr. JOHN PAUL (University of South Florida): We were surprised at how far east the oil had gotten, because this was about 40 miles from the Pensacola area.

THOMPSON: Even though you can't see it, the unseen oil is still a threat. Not directly to people, but to the very basic elements of the food chain .

Mr. BOB KIBLER: These are all identified.

THOMPSON: Researcher Bob Kibler found benzine levels of up to 1,000 times higher than allowed in the mud of Louisiana 's Four Bayou Pass , an area that nurtures a variety of living creatures. Things such as?

Mr. KIBLER: Such as the small plankton, the small bacteria that are taken up by the oysters, that are taken up by the shrimp, and eventually work their way up the food chain .

THOMPSON: And that's what concerns both independent scientists and the government alike, that no matter how you calculate the oil budget, that the true impact of this spill won't be known for years to come. Brian :

WILLIAMS: Anne Thompson starting us off once again from Venice , Louisiana , tonight. Anne , thanks.