Speaking before hundreds of environmental journalists last week in Montana in advance of tomorrow's six-month anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Obama administration's oceans chief said federal agencies need to be more effective in communicating with the public about disasters like the BP oil gusher and do so "in ways that are understandable."
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the annual gathering of the Society of Environmental Journalists that with the well in the Gulf of Mexico now capped, her agency's focus is helping the public regain confidence that it can "eat, swim, and fish" in the Gulf "and do so with joy."
NOAA continues to assess the enviornmental health of the Gulf, Lubchenco said, but the agency is walking a tightrope between "using the best science while assuring that our legal obligations are met." She was referring to the ongoing investigation into the disaster's causes and consequences under the federal National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) law. Since one likely result of this investigation may be legal action against BP, a great deal of the information being gathered right now by scientists working with the government, as well as those working with BP, is not being made public, she said.
Mark Schliefstein, a reporter for the New Orleans Times Picayune, asked Lubcenco why the public seemed to get the wrong message from the government's early August "oil budget"-- a report that assessed the fate of the five million barrels of leaked oil. The Obama administration has been criticized by its own national oil spill commission for misrepresenting the report's findings to the public, particularly in reassuring the nation that relatively little oil was left in the Gulf of Mexcio.
Lubchenco's response seemed in keeping with the overall thrust of the Obama administration to downplay the potential damages to the region. Thanking Schliefstein for the "opportunity to address the confusion over this," she said that the bottom line was that about half of the oil was removed completely from the Gulf: either skimmed, burned, or directly captured by responders, or evaporated or dissolved.
Another quarter of the oil was dispersed "either chemically or naturally...[W]e remain very concerned about this quarter that was dispersed," she said. This oil has been or will be in the deep water column, Lubchenco said, biodegrading at an unknown rate and possibly harming marine life.
This leaves a quarter of the leaked oil unaccounted for, she said, because it is "hard to measure, washed up on beaches" and turning up in other ways.