At a Thursday hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, chairman Edward Markey tore into government scientists, who earlier this month released a report that had been interpreted as showing that only “26 percent of the oil released from BP’s runaway well is still in the water or onshore in a form that could, in principle, cause new problems.”

He criticized the agency for releasing the report without releasing some of the underlying models, which he said should be open to public scrutiny “in real time.”

Bill Lehr, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the information would be released in the coming months, and he would do what he could to expedite the process. He asked the academic community for patience — a luxury he said he did not have with Adm. Thad Allen.

Lehr pointed out that the findings Markey criticized came from an “oil budget” intended to guide the response to the spill. Dispersed or degraded oil might still be present in the gulf, but from the perspective of someone trying to guide cleanup efforts, it may be hard to do much more about oil in those forms.

He also said that somewhere between 60 to 90 percent of the 4.1 million barrels spilled could remain in the gulf in various forms. (An estimated 4.9 million barrels leaked, of which 800,000 was brought straight to the surface.)

Still, The New York Times reports that the NOAA is standing by its earlier report:

Responding to the criticism, Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, said the government stood by its calculations. “Some of those numbers we can measure directly,” she said. “The others are the best estimates that are out there.”

“There was an optimistic spin” placed on the report, Markey said, which could dampen the political will to send resources to the gulf for cleanup and recovery.

Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald pointed out that the Macondo well (where Deepwater Horizon was set) also contained a large volume of natural gas. In addition to the oil already recovered, he said another 10 percent may have evaporated, which could still leave up to 80 percent of the oil in various forms — a number that jibes with calculations released this week by a University of Georgia team, which were based on NOAA’s numbers but interpreted differently.

In this short video from the Associated Press, Samantha Joye, a member of that team, explains the fine points of interpreting the data:

“I think that the imprint of the BP release … will be detectable in the Gulf of Mexico environment for the rest of my life,” MacDonald said, adding that he’s 58 years old.

He called for a “permanent fund” to pay for ongoing study of the gulf.

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