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Academic scientists say oil from gulf spill is not going away quickly

As BP reduces the size of the "vessels of opportunity" program, fishermen who work in more remote areas are expressing concern about oil they have recently spotted in places where boats have not been deployed.

They said they were puzzled about how, exactly, the oil got there: Despite the conventional wisdom that oil floats, this crude seemed to have stopped rising less than halfway through its journey from the well to the surface. They thought that perhaps icelike hydrate crystals played a role, or that the dispersant chemicals squirted into the oil as it escaped.

What was certain, at least at that time, was that it wasn't disappearing. Scientists tested the levels of dissolved oxygen to find out whether they were unusually low, which would indicate that microbes were at work. But they weren't.

The researchers declined to speculate about how their findings should alter the government's official "budget" of what became of BP's oil. Their inquiry, they said, was limited to finding the plume -- and, for now, they couldn't say what percent of the spilled oil it contained.

In the future, "we may be able to say whether [this plume] is a penny in a very large checkbook," said Christopher M. Reddy of Woods Hole. "Or whether it's bigger."

The federal government's initial estimate of the oil's fate, announced Aug. 4, provided a major shift in the narrative of the spill. Suddenly, a historic disaster looked manageable -- its mysteries distilled into a pie chart.

"More than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone," White House climate and energy czar Carol M. Browner said on NBC's "Today" show that day.

The report did not go that far, but it did portray a spill that was rapidly losing its punch. The report said that of the 4.9 million barrels (205.8 million gallons) that escaped BP's well, about half had been cleaned up, evaporated or dissolved.

The other half might still be in the gulf, the report said. But the government said that half of it had been dispersed by chemicals and natural processes, and that preliminary indications showed the remaining oil was "biodegrading quickly."

Since then, the government has begun a new effort to track the location and environmental effects of oil underwater. But Lubchenco defended the decision to release the first assessment publicly.

"What do you think would have happened if folks learned that we were studying where the oil was but we refused to tell people what we knew?" she said.

Lubchenco, in her afternoon news conference, said that microbes could have begun eating much more of the oil in the two months since. The study "tells us what was happening in June," she said. "It doesn't tell us what was happening now."

It is still true that the gulf spill has not caused the kind of apocalyptic damage to marshes and coastal ecosystems that scientists had feared. But this week, scientists have criticized the government, saying it has made the situation seem far rosier than it is.

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