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USGS director quietly wages 'fearless' war on oil spill

Though she has stayed behind the scenes for most of the federal response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt has emerged in the past week as a bold, forthright translator of the web of numbers and scientific estimates surrounding the spill.

She has gone out on a limb to make projections beyond those from other scientific experts, spoken plainly about her own feelings on the spill and implied in congressional testimony yesterday that the federal government may have been too trusting of assurances from oil companies prior to the spill.

In doing so, colleagues say McNutt has fallen in line with a pattern the Navy Seals-trained explosives expert has demonstrated throughout her career, when she has shown she is not afraid to take risks or press for new scientific and technological advancements.

"Marcia is fearless. She does not shy away from risky situations," said Chris Harrold, director of research and conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a former colleague of McNutt. "She's not reckless, by any means, but she has tremendous courage."

It is also a stark reminder of her father's service in World War II, which the 58-year-old geologist said was an inspiration for her own stint in public service as the first female director of the somewhat-obscure USGS.

"Little did I know at that time that oil would become my enemy and this spill my Normandy," McNutt told a gathering of ocean scientists and advocates on Capitol Hill last week.

'I'll make them for them'

McNutt is overseeing six teams of scientists who are trying to estimate the size of the leak -- a number that will be vital as the federal government seeks recompense from BP PLC based on how much oil it releases. New estimates released last night from the teams found that the well could be leaking 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day -- twice as much as some previous estimates.

The upper bound of the new estimate -- which would indicate the well could be gushing the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every four days -- exceeds the highest numbers scientists predicted last week.

The scientific teams had previously come up with anything from 12,600 barrels to 40,000 barrels per day. But even before the new estimates came out, McNutt stretched the upper end of the bound. In a press call with reporters last week, she said that assumptions from the other numbers could lead to a sum as high as 50,000 barrels.

She emphasized that the scientific team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was "not quite willing" to make those assumptions yet, but said: "I'll make them for them."

Her higher estimate was within the range of the new numbers released last night, which federal officials said were based on new, better data.

But her candor was unusual in the midst of a response effort where other federal officials are very careful not to make any statement about the size of the spill. For instance, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco repeatedly deflected questions about the size of the spill in a previous press call -- even when BP was collecting far more oil than the official estimate from the federal government.

'Paradise' lost

The USGS is a scientific agency that oversees research on everything from volcano and earthquake predictions to water management to intersex fish in U.S. rivers. McNutt – the first female director in the agency’s 130-year-history -- leads some 10,000 scientists, technicians and administrative staff in more than 400 locations. The agency's focus is strictly research, with no regulatory or consulting power.

A native of Minnesota, McNutt fell in love with science in high school and studied physics at Colorado College, which she chose over Stanford. She became interested in the emerging field of plate tectonics and focused on it as a graduate student in the earth sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Her work has taken her to study volcanoes in French Polynesia and uplift in the Tibet Plateau. A certified scuba diver, McNutt once took a Navy Seal demolitions course so she could learn how to use undersea explosives to help efforts at ocean floor mapping.

A horse enthusiast, she has also shown her horse "Lulu" in the Western Pleasure Class. And one of her daughters, Ashley Hoffman, was "Miss Rodeo California" last year.

But McNutt is known as one of the world's leading geophysicists, with more than 90 peer-reviewed scientific articles. She won numerous awards from scientific societies for her studies of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occurring far from tectonic plate boundaries, where those activities were predicted to take place.

That experience would quickly come in handy.

McNutt left California -- her own "pastures of heaven," she said -- and her "dream job" as president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for a job that has, in the past six months, included earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, Asian carp possibly invading the Great Lakes, the California water crisis and the Icelandic volcano that shut down air travel in Europe. That volcano was still spewing ash when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20.

All of those natural disasters required emergency response from USGS scientists, and McNutt admits to being caught off-guard by the oil spill.

"So to say, was this on the USGS radar screen? Absolutely not," McNutt told lawmakers yesterday.

Life less ordinary

McNutt has seen her world change dramatically in the past two months.

Before returning to D.C. last week for a series of meetings, briefings and testimony, McNutt spent the previous 40 days shuffling from a hotel room in Houston to a command center to oversee USGS operations. In addition to estimating the spill size, the command center is developing maps and models, collecting satellite imagery, conducting tests on wildlife and collecting toxicity samples.

"My life has also changed," McNutt told lawmakers yesterday. "I've been consumed 17 hours a day, seven days a week in response to the disaster."

She also blames the oil industry for portraying their operations as more safe than they may have been. The government's relationship with oil companies differs from work on other efforts to work with industry to reduce risk from hurricanes, floods and fire hazards, according to McNutt.

"When we look at the oil problem, we have the industry telling us over and over that there is no problem, you don't have to worry about this," McNutt told lawmakers yesterday. "They say our platforms are safer, our ships are safer ... we have everyone telling us there is no problem, whereas other industries are working hand-in-glove with the USGS every season as we work to reduce the hazard."

The statements could add to lawmakers' furor over the spill and the permitting process that allowed the deepwater rig.

"What we're uncovering right now is astounding, absolutely astounding," said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.). "Were federal agencies involved or was it all just oil companies making their own decisions? Running everything and telling other agencies, 'Don't worry, we've got everything under control.'"

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