New Light on Spilled Oil, But Only a Bit

A widely reported paper in Science this week shows that microbes were not rapidly degrading the oil in a plume streaming from the blown-out BP well in late June. That would seem to contradict a recent federal multi-agency report that stated that spilled oil was "biodegrading quickly."

But the current picture of what's happening to oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico is far murkier than usually portrayed in the media. The more encouraging data that will presumably back up the federal optimism has not yet been made public. Indeed, much data has yet to be released or even taken as oceanographers chase oil plumes hundreds of kilometers from the well.

"We have snapshots of data from different time periods" and different places, says environmental engineer Nancy Kinner of the University of New Hampshire, Durham. "We have yet to get all the data together in one place where we can look at it as a time series to understand what's going on."