FSU Oceanographer Who Raised Concern With Oil Spill Estimates Says He's 'Disappointed' With Response

Oct 8, 2013

Florida State University oceanography professor Ian MacDonald has spent decades studying the Gulf of Mexico. Most of his work has centered specifically on oil in the Gulf—both natural seeps and industry leaks.

When the Deepwater Horizon Oil platform exploded three years ago, killing 11 people and sinking the rig, the BP oil company and the federal government were slow to determine how much oil was flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

MacDonald says shortly after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the Louisiana Coast, he and his researchers noticed numbers from BP and the federal government they were being given didn’t add up:

“We looked at the size of the oil slicks and the rate the size was increasing, and it was obvious to me, a rate of 5,000 barrels a day couldn’t produce slicks of the size we were seeing at the rate it was being reported," he says.

MacDonald was one of the first scientists to call those findings into question.  His research subsequently became the basis for part of the federal government’s civil lawsuit against British Petroleum.

The oil giant and the federal government are at odds now in court over how much oil spilled into the Gulf.  A federal judge in Louisiana will decide how much BP will pay in fines, depending largely on how much crude was released. But MacDonald says he and his colleagues were wrong, even after they revised the estimates up…

“Initially, we said it had to be at least 25,000 barrels a day at a bare minimum. Well we know that the agreed-upon rate, after we collected data...is more like 50-60,000 barrels a day”.

Three years after the spill, the Gulf waters are again clear. The oil began dissipating a week after the well was plugged. But MacDonald thinks neither the state nor the nation has changed procedures enough in the wake of the disaster to prevent a similar event in the future.

“I don’t see the state government has done that, and I don’t see that the federal response has done that. I think we’re back to where we were.” 

The Gulf Oil Spill became the largest in U.S. History, surpassing the previously worst disaster, the Exxon Valdez, in Alaska. Exxon was fined about $900 million.

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