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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.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones's Washington bureau. For more of her stories, see here, and you can follow her on Twitter here.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 24, 2010; 8:49 AM ET
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welcome Kate and great post.

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."

How about saying we don't have any idea yet what it is and we're focusing all our effort on capping it and we'll figure out the effects (short-term and long term) once we've stopped the gushing).

Again as I've said when this first came up (although some accused me of politicizing it) that the administration's response has been weak. The first moment it seemed like BP's response was inadequate the Federal Government should have stepped in and taken over and then just given BP the bill and made them pay it WITH interest.

13 Exxon Valdez' spills (and counting). That's horrible and should have been addressed as such.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 24, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

thank you for this post.
hope you will be providing us with information on the spill during the week.

Posted by: jkaren | May 24, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

The Obama administration and the EPA are stopping Louisiana's attempts to curtail the damage to their shores from the BP oil spill by building sand bars twenty miles out, BUT THE EPA AND OBAMA WILL NOT GIVE PERMISSION BECAUSE THEY WANT TO DO AN ENVIRONMENTAL STUDY OF THE IMPACT OF THE SAND BAR FIRST. OMG!!!!!!!


Posted by: prossers7 | May 24, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

BP, the self-proclaimed greenest energy company planet was lying about the environmental damage that's happened under their watch? I'm shocked, shocked I say.


I've studied the impact of using all-caps to make your point more emphatic, and have determined that IT DOES NOT WORK!!!

Also, you'd expect anything else out of the Obama administration? Sounds about par for the course. You expect the bird to fly and the fish to swim, do you not? Then, you should expect the good-intentions of the nanny-state to backfire, or be completely worthless (and completely clueless) in a crisis situation.

Not that there may not be a good reason to delay.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 24, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse


the odd thing is that a nanny state would be to take over the operations and fix it (ala the auto industry, what some would like to do the insurance industry and the financial sector). The sad thing is he's doing the "Republican thing" as some would say on here.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 24, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse


Your comments are like a puppy chasing its tail.

If we had a true "nanny state," the permit to drill never would have been issued, or a permit would have been issued only upon a clear demonstration that there was a proven strategy in place to stop any leak before significant was done.

The families of the men who died in that exposion likely wish we had a more strict nanny watching the corporate brats.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 24, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

This has been going on for over a month, and the Obama Administration has done NOTHING BUT POINT THE FINGERS AT OTHERS, AND NOW ……. APPOINTING A COMMISSION!! WHAT LEADERSHIP …. NOT!!!

On May 21, Robert Gibbs provided the feeble excuse that 'it was all about who was going to pay for the clean up." For Pete's sake, they were not concerned about who was going to pay for the following:

* The Stimulus
* The Auto Bailouts
* The TARP
* The Bank in Chicago where Valerie Jarrett served on the board

But, when it comes to saving jobs in the Delta, LA, MS, and AL -- not to mention FL, Obama seems to be totally impotent! WHY?


The Obama Administration is coming across as the most incompetent in modern history. They are proving as each day goes by that it is ALL ABOUT THEM, AND NOT ABOUT THE PEOPLE OF THE USA!

Posted by: wheeljc | May 24, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Can someone tell me how much BP pays for Production Royalty?

Can this Oil leak be verified with their declared Production Tax?

I feel a bigger stake lies in whether Declared Production Tax is correct, rather than the cost to cleanup.

Are all these discussion about Pollution and Clean up cost, is a smoke screen to the much needed to be discussed Topic? ARE THESE OIL COMPANY PAYING PROPER PRODUCTION TAX!!!

Posted by: mindanao786 | May 24, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

@visionbrkr: "Kevin, the odd thing is that a nanny state would be to take over the operations and fix it"

Given the nature of the problem, that would probably take the Army Corps of Engineers. And the military is bad. It's a bit of a catch-22, really. However, they can prevent states from doing things to protect their coast lines.

@Patrick_M: "Your comments are like a puppy chasing its tail."

Agreed. Not only are they crazy-adorable, but they remind people about what's important in life. Indeed, about what it means to be human.

"If we had a true 'nanny state,' the permit to drill never would have been issued"

Unless BP was donating generously to Nanny's campaign war chest.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 24, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse


"Unless BP was donating generously to Nanny's campaign war chest."

Wow, big day for talking points. I try to avoid going down this road, but since you want to politicize everything, let's look at the dates when this thing was approved and put into operation, and then you remind which nanny let it happen:

"...delivered in February 2001 after the acquisition of R&B Falcon by Transocean. She was the second semi-submersible rig constructed of a class of two, although the Deepwater Nautilus, her predecessor, is not dynamically positioned. Since arriving in the Gulf of Mexico, Deepwater Horizon was under contract to BP Exploration. Her work included wells in the Atlantis- and Thunder Horse Oil Fields, a 2006 discovery in the Kaskida field, and the 2009 Tiber oilfield. On September 2, 2009, Deepwater Horizon drilled on the Tiber oilfield with a vertical depth of 35,050 feet (10,680 m) and measured depth of 35,055 feet (10,685 m), of which 4,132 feet (1,259 m) was water.

In 2002, the rig was upgraded with "e-drill," a drill monitoring system whereby technicians based in Houston, Texas, received real-time drilling data from the rig and transmitted maintenance and troubleshooting information."

So the approval of construction and the deployment of the rig took place under nannies Clinton and Bush, and by the time Obama was there, the rig was already working at its fourth location in the Gulf.

If you really want to connect dots between BP's negligence (and the way the government passed out the permits during the Bush-Cheney years) with Obama's campaign donations, wear your shiny new tin foil hat proudly, and start typing in all caps.

But don't forget, the new flavor-of-the-month for the right wing, Rand Paul, thinks Obama has been way TOO mean to BP (an accident is just an accident, after all), and Limbaugh says oil in the ocean is just a natural sort of thing that takes care of itself. How much is BP giving them, if that's the explanation?

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 24, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Further regarding the Palin-Willis talking point about oil industry campaign donations to Obama as a factor in the Deepwater leak:

"According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Republicans receive far more campaign money from the oil and gas industry than do Democrats.

So far in 2010, the oil and gas industries have contributed $12.8 million to all candidates, with 71% of that money going to Republicans. During the 2008 election cycle, 77% of the industry’s $35.6 million in contributions went to Republicans, and in the 2008 presidential contest, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain received more than twice as much money from the oil and gas industries as Obama: McCain collected $2.4 million; Obama, $898,000."

So, by the Willis-Palin theory, we are VERY LUCKY that McCain didn't win, because he'd be spilling oil any place he could for that kind of dough.

Jeesh. Now can we get back to talking about the issue like grown-ups?

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 24, 2010 7:40 PM | Report abuse

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