With 90% of up to 4.4 million barrels of oil ‘unaccounted for’, it’s now… still unaccounted for.

Over a month ago, a U.S. government scientist ate crow and admitted 90% of the oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s exploded Deepwater Horizon rig was ‘unaccounted for‘.

One oceanographer told a government probe that he estimates 2.5 million barrels—or 105 million gallons— are still “embedded in the fragile ecosystem”, the Agence France-Presse reported yesterday (via The Raw Story).

The fact is that it has yet to be accounted for, Suzanne Goldberg reported today at the London Guardian:

On his [Rainer Amon, an ocean scientist at Texas A&M University at Galveston] return voyage he is encountering a void. “If that oil and gas had been consumed by bacteria you would expect to see more oxygen depletion than what we have seen,” he said.

“Was it just a fluke that we found it, or is there an oil carpet on the ground?”

So where is the oil? It’s been two months since any new crude from BP’s well entered the Gulf. Independent estimates suggest 4.4m barrels of oil spewed out into the Gulf of Mexico, but there is no scientific agreement on its fate. “You could say it’s a mystery,” said Amon.

Did the oil sink to the bottom? A University of Georgia research expedition earlier this month discovered a thick coating of oil on the sea floor, 16 nautical miles from the BP well-head.

Is it floating in the depths? One team of researchers reported finding a deep sea plume of oil and natural gas the size of Manhattan, that was slow to degrade. A second study of the plume found the oil and gas were quickly being gobbled up by microbes.

Federal government agencies, meanwhile, have been seen to play down the long-term effects of the oil.

“We still have not got to the bottom of where the majority of the oil went,” said Adam Walters, a Greenpeace scientist. “The work is sound but the conclusions are really clutching at straws.”

The uncertainty about the fate of the oil has deepened the sense of urgency among scientists to gather evidence from the deep water and the ocean floor, and to begin weighing the effects of the spill on marine life.

That in turn has scientists clamouring for the release of the BP research funds, the bulk of which have yet to be awarded.

As I’ve written before, BP’s trust funds for the Gulf are a scam:

The government’s been aiding BP’s public relations nightmare since the explosion. Frankly, there has been no reason to believe that Washington or BP have ever made anything but marketing the first priority.

The damages from the April explosion are estimates well into the tens of billions and the initial scare was that, after cleanup, BP would only be held liable for $75m in damages and U.S. taxpayers inevitably footed with the rest of the bill. Playing damage control, the Obama Administration brokered a ‘voluntary’ $20bn holding fund that BP would set aside to cover future claims.

In reality, BP is expected to save nearly $10bn this year is U.S. and U.K. tax credits as it announced a $32.2bn provision for the spill. Worse, the $20bn escrow fund agreement is not directly with BP PLC, but with BP Exploration and Production Inc., a subsidiary of BP America Production, which is a distant subsidiary of BP PLC that deals primarily with production in the Gulf. Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones reported today:

BP America Production is a subsidiary of BP Company North America, which is a subsidiary of BP Corporation North America, which is a subsidiary of BP America Inc., which is a subsidiary of the parent company BP. In case you’re counting, that means the escrow deal is with a subsidiary five layers removed from BP PLC, the multinational oil giant. Because the deal is with a subsidiary way down the chain, it would be difficult to access additional funds from the corporate parent should the subsidiary collapse or simply not have enough funds to meet the obligation, since it’s the subsidiary, not the parent corporation, that’s legally on the hook, says Public Citizen.

Translation: if BP can’t drill in the Gulf, they can just tank BP Exploration and Production Inc. and the escrow agreement goes to the bankruptcy courts. Worse that what Ms. Kilkenny fears, U.S. taxpayers will be forced to deal with the mess and BP will not have run away, but will be drilling and collecting oil to sell back to the government a stone’s throw away. The government can’t afford to force BP to comply without risking that runaway and the bankruptcy of BP Exploration and Production Inc.

The rig exploded in late April and Gallup poll results released today found that depression is up 25% along the Gulf coast since.

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