The gulf spill: Size matters
By Kate Sheppard
BP has been getting a plenty of flak in the past week as it became clear that the company has been low-balling the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. But here's what's missing from that conversation: the now-disputed 5,000-barrel-per-day figure came from the federal government, not BP.
Up until April 29, BP was still saying that only 1,000 barrels of oil was leaking into the gulf. The 5,000 figure came from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, which BP soon thereafter affirmed. But now it's becoming clear that the spill is far, far bigger – possibly more like 95,000 barrels, or nearly 4 million gallons, per day.
Now, after a month, the Obama administration is finally setting up a Flow Rate Technical Team made up of experts from the Coast Guard, government agencies, and universities to assess the real rate of flow from the hole. And both the government and BP are starting to admit that their operating figure may be far from the truth, while still defending it. "That was within a wide range," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles told reporters Friday afternoon. "We've said this since the beginning, there's a huge amount of uncertainty around that number."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco defended the administration's use of the 5,000-barrel figure on Thursday: "That number was useful and the best estimate at the time." She also played down the significance of the figure, saying that the response efforts were always based on the anticipation of a worst-case-scenario, not on that low figure and that the government's primary concern had been stopping the flow, not measuring it.
But getting that number right will be crucial to ensuring the response is adequate, that BP pays the full costs associated with it, and that the U.S. makes well-informed decisions about offshore-drilling in the future. A too-low figure would let the company evade millions, or probably more like billions, in damages. It should be a top priority for the federal government at this point, because the numbers really do matter.
When you start looking at what those figures mean now more than a month into the spill, the difference is radical. If one believed BP's original estimate, there would only be 1.4 million gallons of oil in the gulf so far. If you believe the adjusted figure from NOAA and BP, 6.9 million gallons of oil have already hemorrhaged into the Gulf. But if outside experts are right, the figure is likely closer to 131.6 million gallons – or nearly 13 Exxon Valdez spills.
When will there be a new figure from the feds? Not clear. U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry told reporters Friday that the numbers might take a while. "This team is not going to be rushed to come up with a figure too quickly," said Landry.
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