TRANSCRIPT: Oil Budget Press Call
On Tuesday, Nov. 23, the Federal Interagency Solutions Group, established at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard and authorized under a directive from the National Incident Commander (NIC), released a peer-reviewed report that details the scientific calculations of the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill Oil Budget Calculator response tool announced last August.
Coordinator: Welcome and thank you for standing by. At this time all participants are in a listen-only mode. To ask a question during the question and answer session please press star 1 on your touch-tone phone. Today’s conference is being recorded. If you have any objections you may disconnect at this time. Now I will turn the call over to Mr. Justin Kenney. Sir you may begin.
Justin Kenney: Thank you (Kelly) and thank you all for joining us. Again my name is Justin Kenney, Director of Communications at NOAA. Joining me on the phone today is Dr. Jane Lubchenco, that is L-U-B-C-H-E-N-C-O. Dr. Lubchenco is the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator.
We’re here today to release the final documentation for the federal oil budget calculator and in a moment I will turn this call over to Dr. Lubchenco for her opening remarks and then we’ll be happy to take your questions. Before I do so, just let me point out that the final report and press release are available at restorethegulf.gov and at noaa.gov. And with that I will turn the call over to Dr. Jane Lubchenco. Thank you.
Jane Lubchenco: Thanks Justin. Good afternoon everyone, thank you for joining me. Today as Justin mentioned the federal government is releasing the peer reviewed technical documentation behind the oil budget calculator that was used in supporting response activities for the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and was released on August 4.
Led by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and NOAA, this report is a thorough review of the oil budget and benefits from the contributions of many of the world’s leading experts on oil spills.
In addition to providing the technical documentation behind the oil budget, the report refines the estimates. This refinement reaffirms most of the numbers released in August, and where there were changes that came in areas where we were purposefully conservative in August. Most notable is the increase in the estimate for dispersed oil, specifically from 8% to 16%, taking into account the uncertainties for both of those of course.
As the report explains, the scientists were able to acquire new information that allowed them to relax their original conservative estimates. I will start with the conclusions first and then provide some relevant context for you.
The first important conclusion is that the refined calculations improved based on additional input. I’m sorry, let me say that again. The most - the first important conclusion is that the refined calculations, improved based on additional input, largely reaffirm the numbers released in August.
When we released the oil budget in August, we said an estimated 26% of the oil released was left as residual. As I explained at that time, we were able to measure or estimate other categories with varying degrees of certainty. The volume that could not be measured or estimated was classified as residual. It’s the oil that was potentially amenable to response action.
For the most part this residual oil was at the surface as light sheen or weathered tar balls, biodegraded, or had already come ashore. Today’s report refines that estimate of residual oil slightly from 26% to 23%.
The largest change between the original estimates issued in August and today is related to the efficacy of the dispersants. The new report increases the estimate for chemically dispersed oil from 8% to 16%. This is based on additional information from the overall science team, new measurements and observations from the field, and a better understanding of how dispersants work sub-surface.
Let me take a moment here to stress the importance of acknowledging the inevitable uncertainty in estimates. As was the case with the original oil budget, there are varying levels of uncertainty inherent in these estimates. The charts presented in today’s document show each estimate and the associated range reflecting the uncertainty of that calculation.
Some estimates are more certain than others because they were more easily quantifiable. Overall this oil budget report is quite close to that completed in the heat of the response and I would like to take a moment to compliment the scientists within and outside the government who worked under immense amount of pressure to provide accurate and useful information to the emergency response teams on the ground.
The oil budget report is an example of our commitment to scientific transparency and accountability. The refined budget we are presenting today and the full technical documentation should add confidence in our original findings. The report also presents a number of recommendations for areas of study or development that would make oil budgets more accurate and useful to future emergency responses.
So what was the purpose of the oil budget calculator anyway? The sole purpose of the oil budget calculator was to inform the response. It does not tell us where the oil is today or its final fate and it does not tell us what the impact of the oil was. It simply provides estimates of where the oil went over the initial months of the spill. It was one of the tools used to help inform the response activities.
You will recall that the National Incident Command assembled a number of interagency scientific teams to provide information essential to an effective response. While a technical group, for example, provided estimates and ranges of the flow rate and the total volume of oil released, the oil budget calculator team developed a tool to estimate what happened to the oil over the short term -- and again this was one of many tools used to inform the response.
The oil budget calculator was released on August 4 so that the public could have access to the information about the spill. At the time it was released we made a commitment to continue to refine the tool and to provide all the methodologies, functions, and calculations behind the tool and today we are delivering on that promise.
Who was involved in this report? As I mentioned, scientists at USGS, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and NOAA led this effort and I would like to acknowledge those three individuals -- Sky Bristol who is the Science Coordinator for Informatics at USGS; Antonio Possolo, Chief of Statistical Engineering Division at NIST; and William Lehr, senior scientist in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.
Those three lead authors benefited considerably from a group of 15 leading experts who were major contributors or reviewers and by another group of experts who contributed to the calculator development but were not necessarily involved in the development of the document. All of these individuals and the roles that they played are listed in the report.
How was the report peer reviewed? The University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center managed the formal peer review process for this document and the list of peer reviewers is also included in the report. Their efforts represent as complete a documentation of the oil budget calculator as possible.
And in addition to thanking all of those involved, I would note that I believe this is consistent with our commitment to being transparent and accountable in the science that we used to help inform the response. It’s also our hope that this new document will better inform future oil response efforts.
So in closing let me repeat what I said on August 4 and many times since, that dilute and dispersed do not mean benign. We have been and remain concerned about the long term impact on the Gulf and the people who rely on it for their livelihoods and enjoyment and we remain committed to holding BP and the other responsible parties accountable for damages. With that I am happy to take any questions you have about the updated oil budget calculator.
Coordinator: Thank you. If you would like to ask a question please press star 1. Please unmute your phone and record your name clearly when prompted. Your name is required to introduce your question. To withdraw your request press star 2. Once again, to ask a question please press star 1. Our first question comes from Seth Borenstein from the Associated Press. Your line is open.
Seth Borenstein: Yes, thank you Dr. Lubchenco for doing this. Going right to the chemical dispersion, in seeing that jump, can you go into a little more detail on why especially if this is dispersions that were applied at the surface or the sub-surface dispersement?
And also your own Steve Murawski which I know has now left and others at the St. Pete Beach Science Conference a couple of - a month or so ago were all saying that most of the dispersion that they saw, the effect of dispersion was not chemical but the sheer physics of the temperature and what was coming out - the temperature and the droplet size coming out of the well.
Can you put any ratio here of how much of this is of overall in the dispersion are we seeing that is the chemical and how much is not natural dispersions but the dispersion from the unique physics of this spewing?
Jane Lubchenco: Sure, thanks for that question Seth. You have alluded correctly to the fact that the dispersed category can be arrived at through two pathways. One is natural dispersion that happens as a result of the physical turbulence at the point where the oil is being released.
That physical turbulence results in the oil being broken up into small microscopic droplets and these droplets then can remain suspended in the water column for a period of time much like particles of dust can remain suspended in the atmosphere, in the air.
Chemical dispersants were used to also break up the oil into small microscopic droplets. As you know the chemical dispersants were used both at the surface and sub-surface. The intent of that use of dispersants was to - was twofold. One, to prevent oil from going onto the beaches and two, to make it more readily available to the microbes that are naturally in the water in the Gulf so that it could be more rapidly biodegraded.
In the August 4 initial report that we released the amount of oil that was estimated at the time dispersed by chemical means was 8% and that has now been revised to 16%. The original or the initial estimate of naturally dispersed oil was 16% and that has been revised downward to 13%.
Now I emphasize as we did originally that each of these percentages has a range of uncertainty around it. I also want to note that of the different categories that indicate where the oil went, this dispersed category is the one with the lowest amount of certainty.
In other words, it is a reflection of calculations that are made based on field measurements, laboratory measurements, understanding of physics and chemistry, and since the August 4 report additional information about - from the plethora of scientific expeditions that were on the water and measurements that was made.
So we believe that the dispersed amount of oil, the volume was - is larger on the chemical side and slightly smaller on the naturally dispersed side and the current report provides all of the technical documentation that went into those calculations. Next question please?
Coordinator: Our next question comes from Anne Thompson from NBC News. Your line is open.
Anne Thompson: Thank you, thank you Dr. Lubchenco. Could you please tell us how much oil is left in the Gulf given this calculator? Because if you say, as you say diluted and dispersed does not mean benign, so if you take the - is it a case where we take the 26% and the 13% of naturally dispersed - that’s been naturally dispersed and the 16% of chemically dispersed and add those together to get how much oil is still in the Gulf?
Jane Lubchenco: Thanks for asking that Anne because this is a really important area to - for everyone to understand. Recall that the sole purpose of the calculator was to inform the response. It told us estimates of where the oil went over the initial months of the spill and I can’t emphasize enough that it does not tell us where the oil is today or what its final fate will be or the impact.
And that’s precisely the reason why there is underway a very extensive sub-surface monitoring that is going on to acquire the additional information needed to understand how fast the oil is being degraded, how much is out there from the shallow water all the way out to the deep, throughout the water column, and in the sediment.
And we do not yet have the results, that very comprehensive and extensive monitoring that is underway. We will share those results as soon as we have them but as you can appreciate this is a very extensive effort just because the size of the Gulf is so huge.
The effort that’s underway has been considerable. There have been over 125 dedicated sampling expeditions out in the Gulf with over 25 different deepwater capable vessels, federal, state, private, and academic ships. To date they have spent over 850 total days at sea and collected over 31,000 water and sediment samples from the Gulf, from the Texas-Louisiana border to the Florida Keys and nearly 300 miles out to sea.
So as you can appreciate, analyzing all of those samples, compiling all of the data does take time and we are in the process of doing exactly those analyses and compilations.
So I look forward to an opportunity to report to all of you on what we learn from that. Today’s focus is simply on providing the revised updated oil budget calculator report as delivery on the promise that I made on August 4 that as additional information about the calculator itself came to the fore we would update that and provide full documentation of what went into the calculator. Next question please?
Coordinator: Our next question comes from Alan Kovski from BNA. Your line is open.
Alan Kovski: Hello. As I understand it, the estimates rely fairly heavily on pressure sensors that were attached maybe in late June or early July, something in that timeframe. I’m not sure about that. But I was curious about whether there was any practical means of making earlier estimates with what equipment was available down there. And if not, is there any way in the future to have better equipment down there for earlier estimates of the flow rate of the oil?
Jane Lubchenco: I believe that you are asking about the calculations that went into and the information that went into the flow rate technical team’s calculation of how much oil was flowing per day and what the total volume of oil was.
You will recall that there was a separate interagency scientific team looking on those calculations separate from the report that we’re discussing today. That flow rate technical group concluded in their report that there was 4.9 million barrels plus or minus 10% of oil discharged in total April 20 until July 14.
They also concluded that the initial flow rate was higher than the flow rate at the end of the period of time primarily because the reservoir was being depleted. And so early on the flow rate was in the order of 62,000 barrels per day and by the time the stacking cap was installed the flow rate was in the order of 53,000 barrels per day and that was at the end.
So some of those measurements, the flow rate technical team used a variety of measurements and calculations to come up with those numbers and their report is available separately. It’s posted on the Restore the Gulf Website but that is not the focus of the report we’re discussing today.
The report that we’re discussing today is the oil budget calculator used as input the - both the total volume of oil that was discharged as well as the barrels that flowed per day throughout the period of time to come up with the estimates that are included in the oil budget calculator. Next question please?
Coordinator: Your next question comes from Vivian Kuo from CNN. Your line is open.
Vivian Kuo: Hi there. Going back to your previous answer about updating the August findings, with these new findings I think that 23% is still unaccounted for. Are you going to hunt or continuously release updates to this oil as time goes on?
And it seems like there was some pretty intricate documentation that was going on. Were there any big surprises that jumped out at you the further that you got into these findings?
Jane Lubchenco: So the category to which you are referring is what we call residual and in our August report that was estimated at around 26% and is now around 23%. But I note the ranges are from 11% to 30% so recall that there is - there are a range of numbers, this is not just a very - this is not a super precise estimate, it’s an estimate.
But that residual was what was remaining after you subtract out the amount of oil that was recovered directly, that was dispersed, that was evaporated or dissolved, and that was burned or skimmed. If you take all of those categories and subtract them from the total, what is left over, what is remaining is this residual category.
Specifically that is the oil that cannot be directly measured or estimated with any confidence. And it was the oil that was at some point in as tar balls, as surface slicks, as washed upon beaches, and it is not what is remaining in the Gulf today. It was - it reflects the amount, the volume of oil that during the response effort was still amenable to some kind of response action.
So let me restate that just to make it clear. The residual category reflects oil that was not in one of the other categories that could be easily measured or estimated and the importance of that category was that this was one piece of information that was critical for the response effort to know how much was out there and where it was.
So the residual oil is tar balls, surface slicks, might sink due to sedimentation, it might be deemed biodegraded, it might remain in the surf zone, it might be washed up on the shore. Any one of those categories are the kinds of things that you cannot estimate or measure directly. Next question please?
Coordinator: Our next question comes from Kate Sheppard from Mother Jones Magazine. Your line is open.
Kate Sheppard: Hi, two questions. The first one I think the last person actually asked but didn’t answer. Are there - this is more - this is the August 4, revisiting those numbers. Are there going to be continual updates about where the oil is now and when can we expect a more like current situation report?
Jane Lubchenco: Thanks, I apologize, I didn’t answer that part of it. I got caught up in explaining what the residual was. Yes, we will continue to provide updates as we have that information.
What we are releasing today are the refined estimates of where the oil went in the short term, in the initial months of the spill. And the current sampling that is underway is designed to give us information about how much oil is still out there and where it is and in what form. And the very extensive monitoring effort that is underway is doing exactly - giving us that information.
But as I mentioned, it’s a pretty big Gulf out there and we are doing very comprehensive sampling and look forward to sharing those results with you as soon as they are available.
I can say that it is pretty obvious from that sampling that there is a significant amount of natural biodegradation of the dispersed oil that continues to be underway. We do not yet have precise measurements of those rates but the indications that we have from many of the research expeditions are suggesting that the microbes in the Gulf are actively consuming the hydrocarbons, the oil, and it continues to be biodegraded.
As you know, we were monitoring dissolved oxygen very closely with the intent of tracking, using that as an indicator of microbial action and the dissolved oxygen information tells us that the microbes are being active and are degrading that oil. We look forward to being able to provide more comprehensive information once we have assembled all of the data and done the analyses. Next question please?
Coordinator: Our next question comes from John Rudolf from New York Times. Your line is open.
John Rudolf: Hello. I - you guys have answered actually - I had three questions but two of them I think were already answered. So back in August when the report was - when this kind of preliminary report was released, you know, NOAA and the administration were attacked as being, you know, overoptimistic and criticized for being, you know, jumping the gun on this and essentially kind of declaring that the spill was - that the vast majority of the oil was kind of dispersing naturally.
You’ve gone back, you’ve crunched the numbers. It sounds like you’ve put this through a pretty rigorous peer review process. Do you think this review, you know, essentially kind of vindicates the administration’s kind of early position that, you know, the oil spill’s impact was actually going to be less severe than initially feared?
Jane Lubchenco: So I want to make a distinction John between impact and what we are talking about in this report which was sort of where the oil went. This report does not address impact at all. There is a very active process that’s called natural damage - natural resource damage assessment that is underway that will assess the damage that the oil in its various forms had.
That, we do not have the answers to how, you know, what the full impact was. I expressed concern that impact simply because of the sheer volume of the oil might be quite substantial.
What we are - the report that we are releasing today does by and large confirm the numbers that were put together in the initial report that we released in August. I have noted the numbers that have changed but I think the bottom line is that even under intense pressures of providing information to inform the response effort, the scientific team did a remarkable job providing pretty accurate calculations, estimates of the oil that was in different categories.
And remember, the purpose of doing that was to help inform the response effort and so this oil budget calculator did what it was supposed to. It helped inform the effort, it erred on the side of caution in saying that there was more oil in the residual category than there was, that was intentional.
You know, the Deepwater Horizon incident was an emergency. Decisions - decision makers needed immediate information and the team I think did a very impressive job. So today’s report now that we’ve had time to reflect, take into account more information, crunch the numbers, is a validation of the original numbers.
We were communicating them to the public to simply share what we knew. There was no attempt to make them better or worse than they were. It was designed to share information that had been developed for the response with the idea of being as transparent as possible.
And I think today’s report is validation that efforts that went into the initial calculations were in fact quite impressive. Now they’re even better and we can fold that information into the emerging understanding that can help with another response should that be needed.
Justin Kenney: Thank you. Operator we have time for one final question please.
Coordinator: Our last question comes from Mark Schrope from Nature. Your line is open.
Mark Schrope: Hi Dr. Lubchenco. When the oil budget was first released back in August there was a lot of discussion, it was presented as having been peer reviewed already. Since that time of course a lot of media reports and the presidential commission have both concluded that wasn’t the case.
If those conclusions were accurate, can you talk a little bit about what sort of the source of confusion was over the peer review question early on? And if those conclusions were not accurate can you describe a little bit about where (unintelligible) were off in their conclusions?
Jane Lubchenco: Sure. I think the bottom line is Mark that I was in error in the press conference when I said that the report had been peer reviewed. The report that was released in August had the benefit of consultation with a number of independent experts that were very, very helpful in preparing the initial report but that report was not peer reviewed and I was in error.
The report that we are releasing today as I mentioned has been thoroughly peer reviewed and the fact that it pretty much says that the initial calculations were by and large correct I think is primarily a reflection of the quality of the work that went into the original report.
Justin Kenney: Thank you Dr. Lubchenco, and again thank everyone for joining us. Again, you will find the full report and the press release at restorethegulf.gov and at noaa.gov. Again, thank you for your time and this concludes today’s press conference. Thank you very much.
Coordinator: Thank you for participating in today’s conference call. You may disconnect at this time.