Oil spill estimates soar as top-kill procedure shows signs of success

Ever since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists from both the public and private sectors have offered estimates on how much oil was gushing from BP’s runaway well. New estimates announced by U.S. Geological Survey Dr. Marcia McNutt yesterday place the total amount of oil spilled to date between 17 and 39 million gallons, which means that BP’s original estimates were grossly understated. It also means that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has dwarfed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in size to become the worst spill and environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Calculating the volume of oil erupting from the broken well hasn’t been easy, mainly because the spill is occurring a mile beneath the surface and the technology to deal with it at such depths isn’t readily available. Federal officials also cautioned that their estimates were more like guesstimates.

What’s odd is that the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day issued weeks ago is so remarkably low. Odder still is that in BP internal documents dated April 27, 5 days after the Deepwater Horizon sank, the company estimated 14,266 barrels a day were gushing from its well. The next day, however, BP publicly stated that just 1,000 barrels per day were leaking.

According to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, the difference between 14,000 barrels and 1,000 barrels is a $1.46 billion federal fine.

“What’s clear is that BP has had an interest in lowballing the size of their accident, since every barrel spilled increases how much they could be fined by the government,” Markey said.

“BP has to stop protecting their liability and start dealing with the reality of the size of this spill. Knowing the size of the spill is vital to all facets of this spill, from response to recovery to accountability,” Markey said.

Both BP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stuck by the 5,000-barrel estimate for weeks, even after some experts calculated as much as 100,000 barrels (4,200,000 gallons) a day using reliable measuring techniques. When asked if it thought the oil spill could be much larger, BP responded that its efforts were focused on containing the spill, not measuring it.

Further confusing the situation, BP announced on May 20 that it was successfully recovering 5,000 barrels of oil each day from a tube it had inserted into the broken riser pipe. The announcement raised more questions and suspicion about the 5,000-barrel estimate. Then BP announced it was actually siphoning just 2,000 barrels of oil from the broken pipe, prompting some critics to assert that BP was merely issuing numbers that were reassuring to the public and not based on any real analyses.

When it appeared BP’s “top kill” procedure to stop the leak might be successful, the official estimates skyrocketed. Government officials now say 5 times more oil than previously estimated could be bursting from the well.