New Gov’t Estimate: Even More Oil Spilling

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A new report from the government’s Flow Rate Technical Group, charged with clocking the speed of the Gulf oil leak, has just been released and it’s not good: the new estimate is 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. That’s a significant increase from the most recent count, nearly a week ago, which put the leak at between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels, and even on Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen’s own recent estimates. Here’s what Energy Secretary Steven Chu, one of the leaders of the leak team, had to say:

This estimate brings together several scientific methodologies and the latest information from the sea floor, and represents a significant step forward in our effort to put a number on the oil that is escaping from BP’s well. As we continue to collect additional data and refine these estimates, it is important to realize that the numbers can change.  In particular, the upper number is less certain – which is exactly why we have been planning for the worst case scenario at every stage and why we are continuing to focus on responding to the upper end of the estimate, plus additional contingencies.

Though estimates of the leak have varied widely—from the initial 1,000 barrel a day claim to the current high of up to 60,000 barrels, or 2.5 MILLION gallons a day—the government and independent scientists who make up the Flow Rate Technical Group believe the new count is more accurate. Sensors put into the top hat containment unit, which is diverting thousands of barrels a day from the leak to the surface, have helped the experts get a better fix on the pressure coming out of the well. (The sensors were put in recently, after weeks of both the government and BP saying that it wasn’t a priority to put additional equipment near the well to better measure the leak.) Also, when BP’s robots sheared off the riser pipe nearly two weeks ago, it means that oil was flowing in one direction—before there had been two leaks, which made it tough to estimate the rate from two-dimensional video. (The bad news, though, is that cutting the riser pipe increased the total flow of the oil—but no one’s perfect. Clearly.)

The upwards revision of the oil flow just underscores how important it is for BP to improve its containment capacity, and soon. The Lower Marine Riser Package cap that’s currently in place can process up to 18,000 barrels a day, and BP was going to activate another containment unit today, the Q4000 platform, which could expand that capacity to 20,000 to 28,000 barrels a day. That sounded pretty good yesterday—not so now. Ultimately, though, the government’s plan is for BP to increase its capacity to at least 40,000 barrels a day by the end of June, and at least 60,000 barrels by the middle of July. Of course, that’s not assuming any unfortunate weather events—such as a lightning strike. (BP did report that its containment system was back running by the evening.)

From the beginning, both BP and the government have tried to tell us that it doesn’t really matter how fast the oil was leaking—they were responding as if it were the worst-case scenario. Putting aside how totally illogical that statement is—how would you even know what the worst-case scenario is if you have no idea how much oil is out there?—it’s clear over the past week that the government is responding in a far more significant way then it was a month ago. At Pensacola Naval Station in Florida today, President Barack Obama all but declared war on the oil spill:

“This is an unprecedented environmental disaster,” Obama told a crowd of soldiers, Marines and sailors. “This is an assault in our nation’s shore, and we’re going to fight back with everything we’ve got.”

Somehow if there were actually an assault on our shores—Red Dawn!—I’d expect that our soldiers, sailors and Marines would put more effort into ascertaining the size of the enemy than we’ve done so far with the oil spill. I can forgive Obama his rheteoric—he was getting warmed up for his Oval Office speech tonight at 8 PM—and I’m glad he’s taking this spill seriously. But if he keeps this up—and can’t stop the spill—he’s going to sound like a latter-day King Canute, bidding the tides to stop, while the oil keeps rolling in.