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BP's spill

By Kate Sheppard

Oil is still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico after last weekend’s latest failed attempt to stop the well. Now at day 43, the gulf gusher has unleashed at least 21.7 million gallons of oil, although the number could be as high as 45 million, based on the largest estimate from the government’s spill team.

The government team gave a likely range of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day leaking from the well; one team put the high end at 25,000 barrels. Even the low end is far higher than BP’s first estimated rate of spill, which was 1,000 barrels a day, and much higher than the government’s initial estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. These figures are of course important for the fate of the Gulf of Mexico, as we hear dire warnings of the long-term effects of all this oil. But it’s also key to figuring out exactly how much BP might owe the United States.

The company will be expected to pay for the response efforts, including all the money spent sending the Coast Guard and federal employees to the scene. It will also be expected to compensate the coastal communities and businesses destroyed by the spill. This is the area where there’s been much debate over raising the liability cap, currently set at the very, very low figure of $75 million. But the company will also be forced to pay up under the Clean Water Act, which allows the government to levy civil penalties in court for every barrel of oil spilled. (There could also be criminal penalties, depending on what the Justice Department determines.)

The base fine for a spill is $1,100 a barrel, but it can go as high as $4,300 a barrel if a federal court determines that the spill was the result of gross negligence by the responsible party. From what has come to light in the past few days, it’s looking more likely that BP ignored a number of warning signs about problems with the rig and well, so that might well be the case.

How do these numbers stack up? Well, if BP is found to be negligent and we believed their initial 1,000-barrel-a day figure, they’d only owe $184.9 million. If the low end of the government estimate is right, they’d owe $2.2 billion. And if the highest end is right? They’d owe $4.6 billion.

The difference is significant, so it’s little wonder that the company tried so hard for so long to minimize the damage. And now it looks like the spill could continue for months, meaning those dollars could start to add up.

-- 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 Editors  |  June 1, 2010; 12:05 PM ET
 
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Comments

I have experts compare the difficulty of the relief well operation as being like trying to hit a dinner plate from two miles away. They seem to agree that it will almost certainly take numerous attempts before the well is capped, so even the late August timeline may be optimistic. And even if this week's cut-and-cap strategy is successful, some oil will continue to leak at the seal, so the leak will likely continue to keep pace or exceed our ability to clean up.

The government needs to mount a massive defense of the coastline, with adequate resources in place for the defense and clean-up to continue indefinitely. The cost will be huge.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 1, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Sorry...meant to say:

"I have heard experts compare the difficulty of the relief well operation ..."

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 1, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I read that same article.

I think it would be more correct to say "...as being like trying to hit a TALL STACK OF dinner plateS from two miles away..."

Regarding the oil statistics in the main post, it would be nice if someone could clear up exactly how many leaks exist. I have seen snippets elsewhere (and even was told of a gvmt official) that mentioned there are reported leaks several miles away from the main well site, possibly due to oil seeping through cracks deep down in the well and filtering up through the permeable layers of seafloor in random spots.

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 1, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Has anyone attempted to have Superman seal the leak with his X-ray vision?

Things would be a lot easier if we really had a Son of Krypton out there fighting for truth, justice, and . . . all that stuff.

@Pat: "The government needs to mount a massive defense of the coastline, with adequate resources in place for the defense and clean-up to continue indefinitely. "

But BP is the greenest energy company in the world. They spend all they're time trying to fight global warming. Haven't you seen the commercials?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 1, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

"But BP is the greenest energy company in the world. They spend all they're time trying to fight global warming. Haven't you seen the commercials?"

Yes, all the money they have spent on that PR image campaign is now a total waste.

Lomillialor, I saw one interview with an industry expert who is convinced that most of the oil (including the oil that forms as "plumes") is leaking from somewhere other than the broken riser that we keep seeing in the video feeds.

I dismissed that theory when I first heard it (since I had only seen that single person make the argument), but watching the way everything has unfolded now, it seems like BP and the government are indeed clueless enough to potentially not know where all of the oil is coming from. Let's hope there is only one source to plug.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 1, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

If there are other leaks, I'm guessing the gvmt and BP are together keeping it secret. That may explain why the media is banned from the area. Also, it has been suggested the real reason dispersal chemicals are used were to hide the true extent of the spill (keep it underwater).

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 1, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

These oil execs may as well be the Keystone Cops--so sad.....The TV show "Issues" on Headline News channel is saying they will have the some revealing news regarding this pathetic oil spill tonight on the show.

Posted by: JVMfan | June 1, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Check the math.

Posted by: chase-truth | June 2, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

Check the math.

Posted by: chase-truth | June 2, 2010 7:30 AM | Report abuse

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