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BP plays down government claim on oil plumes

BP on Wednesday played down government reports of undersea oil plumes from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, insisting that it has not found any significant concentration of crude under the surface.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

BP on Wednesday played down government reports of undersea oil plumes from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, insisting that it has not found any significant concentration of crude under the surface.

"We haven’t found any large concentrations of oil under the sea. To my knowledge, no one has," BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said on NBC's TODAY show.

His comments came one day after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said its researchers found subsurface oil as far as 142 miles from the leaking Gulf well. It was the first government confirmation of undersea oil near BP's blown-out well a mile beneath the ocean.

Suttles said this doesn't contradict his company's take on the undersea plumes.

"It may be down to how you define what a plume is here," he said. "But basically, what some people have asked is, are there large concentrations of oil under the sea? And those have not been found so far by us or anyone else that’s measuring this. The oil that has been found is in very minute quantities."

NOAA describes the plumes as consisting of "very low concentrations" of oil. The agency's boats are in the Gulf to gather additional samples, said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA.

"The bottom line is yes, there is oil in the water column," Lubchenco told a briefing in Washington.

Undersea oil is of concern because it can deplete the water's oxygen content and threaten marine life like mussels, clams, crabs, eels, jellyfish and shrimp.

Under scrutiny
BP's efforts to stop oil from its blown-out well came under U.S. congressional scrutiny on Wednesday.

BP said its containment device was now capturing 15,000 barrels of oil a day, putting into further doubt the validity of government estimates on how much oil is spewing into Gulf waters.

A panel of scientists assembled by the government has estimated the leak to range from 12,000 barrels to 19,000 barrels a day, though some researchers believe the number is significantly higher.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the spill response effort, acknowledged at a briefing that he expects a fresh analysis of the flow rate to produce more accurate estimates on how much oil is being released.

Allen said the amount of crude being captured could almost double by next week as processing capacity is expanded.

"We'll be at 28,000 (barrels) by next week. We're building capacity," said Allen. That would be far more than what up to now has been the upper range of the government's estimate of the total oil leaking.

"I'm not going to declare victory or anything until I have hard numbers," he said.

At a Senate hearing, meanwhile, Interior Department officials expressed confidence that more precise numbers on the flow rate will be available from a special task force of scientists, which is nearing completion of a review of earlier flow data and has been provided new high-resolution video.

"We expect to have a much better estimate (of oil flow) very soon," Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Testifying before the Senate energy panel, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sought to reassure lawmakers that the Obama administration has pressed a "pause button, not the stop button," on offshore oil drilling.

Salazar described the recent moratorium that President Barack Obama put in place for offshore deep-water drilling, along with new requirements for oil drilling in shallow water. He said the moratorium affects 33 deep-water drilling rigs but does not halt oil production from existing production wells.

The ultimate solution to the leak lies in the drilling of a relief well and that won't be completed before August.

BP faces a criminal investigation and lawsuits over the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and triggered the spill.

The company has already spent more than $1.25 billion on the cleanup.

In other developments, White House officials released more details about Obama's two-day trip to the Gulf region next week to survey the response to the spill.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama will make stops at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Gulfport, Miss., and in Theodore, Ala., a staging area for many aspects of the response. Gibbs said Obama may also visit Orange Beach, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., where oil is beginning to wash ashore.

Gibbs says Obama will meet with residents and local officials in each of those states. His previous trips to the region have been to Louisiana, and none have kept him in the area overnight.