Update – According to a study of a controlled deep-water spill that was conducted in 2000, surface oil slicks may account for as little as 2% of the oil now spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the oil may end up remaining in deep water, with devastating consequencesfor the ocean’s food chain.

The 2000 study challenges the estimate that around 5000 barrels of oil per day are pouring into the ocean from the site of the broken BP Deepwater rig. In June 2000, Project Deep Spill intentionally released hydrocarbons into the ocean off the coast of Norway over several 1-hour periods.

Researchers found that they couldn’t calculate the amount of crude oil that surfaced because it mixed so thoroughly with water, but they did conclude that only 2 to 28% of the diesel fuel that was released rose to the surface. In New Scientist, Phil McKenna quotes researcher Carys Mitchelmore as saying that a 30% reduction in oxygen, due to surface oil blotting out sunlight, would be “highly significant” to some species of fish, but he says that so far, “We don’t even know how much oil is being released.”

As British Petroleum struggles to contain its environmental disaster in the Gulf, researcher Rafael Reuveny reminds us that the “drill here, drill now” motto of Sarah Palin is shortsighted and destructive. He says, “While this is a popular strategy among Republicans, Tea Partiers, and Blue Dog Democrats, it is a terrible policy. It risks the health of America’s environment and, even more so, the global ecosystem.” But he blames Democrats as well: “In the bigger scheme, President Obama’s executive order to continue offshore drilling brings all of us closer to the brink ofsocial collapse due to severe environmental decline, which has occurred many times throughout history.”

Offshore drilling is growing costlier and more dangerous as easier ways of drilling for oil become exhausted. Reuveny says, “We don’t even know how to solve the current problem in the Gulf. Offshore drilling pushes our technology and safety measures to the limit. The more we drill offshore and the deeper the sea bed is, the higher the risk of these catastrophes. It is a simple game of probability.”

And he doesn’t think we should waste too much effort cleaning up the spill. A better strategy, he says, is to preserve the oil as an insurance plan for the future. “Leaving our oil in the ground is like an underwater bank with an outstanding interest rate as oil becomes increasingly scarce and its price rises. In the meantime, we must invest in new technology and alternative energy sources. These are the ways to maintain our status as world leader. We will only self-destruct if we continue on this irrational course.”

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