From the beginning of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, there have been questions over just how much crude really is bleeding out of BP’s well. The first figure—supplied by the company—was 1,000 barrels a day. The government later upped that to 5,000 barrels, a number that stood despite the skepticism of a raft of outside experts. Finally, late last month, Washington created a Flow Rate Technical Group—composed of experts from inside and outside the government—that first pegged the leak at between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day, an estimate that was raised last week to 20,000 to 40,000 barrels a day.
Throughout that time, BP—and to be fair, the government initially as well—has said that getting an accurate estimate of the leak rate simply wasn’t a top priority while the oil kept flowing. Scientists wanted to put equipment on the ocean floor to get more data on the leak, but on May 20 BP spokesperson Andrew Gowers told the New York Times that wasn’t going to happen:
Given the complex operations going on at the sea floor to try to stop the flow, “introducing more equipment into the immediate vicinity would represent an unacceptable risk,” he said.
BP’s foot-dragging on measuring the leak was always self-serving—after all, the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, put into law after the Exxon Valdez spill, assesses fines based in part on the number of barrels spilled. But after coming under increasing pressure from the government and the public, BP seems to have flip-flopped. On Sunday the company announced that its undersea robots would install sensors in the containment cap system that would help measure the pressure of the oil leak, done at the request of a federal team of scientists charged with getting a proper fix on the leak. The work should be done by Tuesday, and should finally let us know just how much crude is spilling into the Gulf.
So apparently putting more equipment in the immediate vicinity of the well no longer presents an unacceptable risk—or at least, the operational risks more acceptable than the political risks as President Barack Obama bears down on BP. But that the fact that it has taken more than a month and a half to take this step on diagnosing the leak—and the fact that BP’s original excuses were baseless—is another symptom of what the New York Times’s David Carr calls the privatization of a public disaster. That’s unjust—and frankly, really annoying.