Emails and other documents obtained under Freedom of Information Act lawsuits or turned over as part of court proceedings ahead of the February 27 BP oil spill trial suggest politics and spin had more influence on determining the amount of oil BP’s blown-out Macondo well spewed into the Gulf of Mexico each day than actual science.
According to the Associated Press, internal BP emails and memos submitted in the court proceedings show that on the day the Deepwater Horizon sank into the Gulf of Mexico, BP officials warned that oil could gush out of the runaway well at a rate of 3.4 million galls per day.
That “open hole” scenario, as one BP official described it, was a far cry from the 42,000 gallons per day that the Coast Guard reported on April 24 using undisclosed data and methods, and much closer to the 2.4 million gallons per day average government and independent scientists determined months later.
The emails suggest that BP officials knew the disaster’s actual potential soon after the Deepwater Horizon explosion – much earlier than they let on. Just after the explosion, it was reported that no oil was leaking from the well. Forty-eight hours later, the Coast Guard announced a daily flow rate of 42,000 gallons, and that figure climbed steadily higher and higher until satellite images, hundreds of miles of soiled coastline, and other physical evidence emerged, hinting at the oil spill’s true size.
The federal government eventually assembled groups of government and independent scientists to study the flow rate, which was ultimately pegged at 2.4 million gallons per day; that’s 206 million gallons spilled over an 85-day period. But even the government’s own estimates may not have been entirely straight-forward at first, as documents obtained by a Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) lawsuit indicate.
BP’s internal emails also reveal that BP managers wanted to make sure its spill-rate estimates weren’t shared with anyone outside the company and that they were having “heated discussions” with U.S. Coast Guard authorities, according to the AP.
Determining the amount of oil spilled is critical because federal fines levied under the Clean Water Act are calculated on a per-barrel basis. Companies found liable for polluting U.S. waters can be fined between $1,000 and $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled, depending on circumstances and whether gross negligence is found to be a cause.