New oil spill blankets Louisiana coast, source is found

The oily substance that has been spotted floating off the Louisiana coastline and washing up onto beaches is indeed oil, not silt from a dredging operation at the mouth of the Mississippi River as the U.S. Coast Guard said it likely was. Tests conducted over the weekend confirmed that the substance is actually Louisiana sweet crude.

According to witnesses, the oily plume stretches from about six miles off the Louisiana coast to roughly 100 miles offshore. It continued to contaminate beaches all day Monday, including the state wildlife refuge of Elmer’s Island, while on Tuesday river water appeared to be pushing the slick away from the coast.

“This is definitely crude from the Gulf of Mexico,” Capt. Jonathan Burton, who heads the U.S. Coast Guard’s response to the spill from Morgan City, Louisiana, told Dow Jones Newswire. The discovery rules out the possibility that the oil spilled from a refinery or tanker ship.

Scientists first speculated whether the oil was somehow related to BP’s Macondo well, which erupted with crude for three months last year. That that theory was quickly put to rest, however, when U.S. Coast Guard officials found the crude too fresh to be related to the oil spilled by BP last spring and summer.

Now reports say that Houston-based energy company Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners LLC,  actually took responsibility for the spill just hours after it was discovered. However, the company has issued a statement expressing its surprise that their well-plugging operations would release so much oil. Over the weekend, Anglo-Suisse reported that it had released about five gallons of crude into the Gulf while using a remote submarine to plug a well damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

But five gallons of crude isn’t enough oil to cover 30 miles of coastline, so that “estimate” now appears to be an attempt to conceal the true scope of the spill and avoid paying government fines. If the real extent of the oil spill were to be discovered, which it was, the company could then express surprise. Anglo-Suisse may have lost that gamble, but it’s likely they won’t be penalized for rolling the dice.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal authorities, aware of Anglo-Suisse’s reported five-gallon spill, spent its time and money looking for another nonexistent source.

BP played the same game when it grossly underestimated the size of its own oil spill in an effort to dodge and downplay its responsibility. BP claimed in the earliest days of the spill that between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels (42,000 – 210,000 gallons) were leaking per day. Internal documents obtained by Congressional subpoena later revealed the company actually figured 62,000 to 100,000 barrels (2,604,000 – 4,300,000 gallons) were being released. But it was worth a shot to BP to at least try lowballing the estimates as much as could believed at the time.

When the oil giant’s first attempts to seal the blown-out well failed, it cautiously increased its estimates when it knew all the oil would be difficult to conceal. It also injected unprecedented quantities of oil dispersants at the source so that the oil wouldn’t make it to the surface and be easily visible.

Offshore oil drillers know that the government doesn’t have enough regulators to police federal Gulf waters and enforce the law, so the pollution reporting system is run on the honor system more often than not . Current regulations say that polluters must turn themselves in when they are responsible for a spill. But knowing that federal inspectors will probably never show up to investigate, oil giants aren’t usually compelled to do the right thing.