MISSOULA, Mont. -- NOAA Administrator Jane Lubcheco on Friday defended as "consistent" her description of the fate of oil spilled last summer in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, an oil industry representative told environmental journalists that the nation must continue deep-water oil drilling as an important economic driver in the Gulf region.
The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in April, causing more than 200 million gallons of oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico until July 15, when the leaking well a mile beneath the surface was capped. The spill caused waves of oil to wash ashore near Pensacola and caused beach tourists to cancel vacation plans across Florida.
On Friday, Lubchenco was on a panel at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference at the University of Montana to discuss lessons learned. In August, NOAA released a report showing that about 50 percent of the oil had been collected, burned or dispersed while another 50 percent remained in the environment or had been evaporated or dissolved.
White House Advisor Carol Browner, former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation from 1991-93 and a former U.S. EPA administrator, told television audiences in August that 75 percent of the oil from the spill was gone.
Asked at the SEJ conference how that misrepresentation had been spread in the media, Lubchenco said, "There has been a lot of confusion about a lot of things different people said about it. I have been consistent in saying exactly what I just told you."
Some of the dispersed oil remains as microscopic droplets. But she said the water with the dispersed oil looks like drinking water and that there isn't an "undersea lake of black oil" that has been described in some press coverage.
"But dispersed and dilute (oil) does not mean benign," she cautioned. "That could still have very serious consequences to the small creatures and medium-size creatures in the ocean. That is what we remain very concerned about."
Doug Rader, chief oceans scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said that the worst-case fear of oil being delivered by the Gulf Loop Current into the Florida Keys, Cuba and around to the Atlantic coast had not been realized during the oil spill.
"I'm not trying to suggest that we actually dodged the bullet, because I don't think we did," he said. "I think the total impact, as Dr. Lubcheco suggested, has yet to be fully written. There are plenty of out-of-sight, out-of-mind ecological elements that took it on the chin."
The oil industry has been examining its practices to ensure that another such oil spill does not occur, said Kyle Isakower, vice president of policy analysis at the American Petroleum Institute.
"Clearly things went horribly wrong," he said. "This served to spur the oil and gas industry to reassess our activities. It has created an acknowledgement on behalf of the industry that we must improve."
But Isakower also said that deepwater drilling must continue. The Obama administration earlier this week lifted a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the western Gulf of Mexico, prompting criticism from Florida Gov. Charlie Crist who said such offshore drilling remains a threat to Florida's coast.
The oil industry, Isakower said, has created a start-up company with $1 billion to be used for oil spill containment.
"It is essential from both an economic and energy security standpoint that we resume operations in the Gulf," he said.
Panel moderator Mark Schleifstein, a reporter at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, opened the discussion by saying that journalists deserved blame rather than praise for failing to report on the risk of oil drilling before the spill.
"The one thing (Hurricane) Katrina taught a number of people (including journalists) … was that ignoring residual risk -- you do only at your own peril," Schleifstein said. "Just like with the levee system of New Orleans, we ignored residual risk (of oil drilling) in the offshore community."
"We had the opportunity to write stories well in advance of this disaster about the potential residual risk," he said. "And to be honest, we blew it. There was no washing away (oil) washing up on shore from this event -- from any newspaper in the United States."
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