Fate of oil in Gulf may never be known

The amount of oil left in the Gulf of Mexico from last year’s massive spill may never be known, according to a congressional report made public Monday.

“It is debatable whether the fate of the remaining oil will ever be established conclusively,” the report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) says.

The report comes after the Obama administration in August released its own estimate of the fate of oil in the Gulf. The so-called “oil budget” said a significant amount of the oil had been removed from the Gulf. The administration updated its oil budget with new information in November, but was criticized for using the report to offer what many saw as an overly optimistic view of the spill's effects.

While a “substantial portion” of the oil was removed from Gulf waters after the spill, “a greater portion remained, in some form, in the Gulf,” the CRS report says. “Months later, it is unknown what happened to the oil that remained.”

There are a number of reasons why it is difficult to come up with precise estimates of the amount of oil remaining the Gulf, “including the complexity of the Gulf system; resources required to collect data; and varied interpretations over the results and observations,” according to the report. “Moreover, as time progresses, determining the fate of the oil will likely become more difficult.”

More information on the fate of the oil could come over time. “Researchers are continuing to study various components of the Gulf, specifically damages to natural resources,” the report says. “Some of these efforts may provide clues to the oil’s fate.”

Determining the amount of oil left in the Gulf of Mexico is important because it could drive efforts to pass oil spill-related legislation, the report says. While the House passed an oil-spill response bill last year, the Senate has yet to pass broad legislation on the issue.

“If policymakers have the perception that the oil has degraded with minimal impacts to the environment, attention to the oil spill’s consequences and associated impacts may wane,” the report says. “On the other hand, a perception that a substantial volume of oil remains and poses a threat to the environment could result in continuing pressure on Gulf industries and livelihoods.”

The report is dated Dec. 16, but was made public Monday by the Federation of American Scientists.