Still Failing to Size the Spill: BP Mendacity Watch #2

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BP COO Doug Suttles says the company "threw everything" at the spill

Remember the line Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman? “Every word she says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” I’m beginning to think those words may apply to BP as well. I’ve written before about the company’s habit of not just downplaying the extent of the oil gushing from its blown well in the Gulf, but repeatedly telling us that the size of the spill wouldn’t matter. The line—from both BP and the government, at least initially—was that they were responding to the worst-case scenario no matter what, so it wasn’t worth the time and the effort to figure out exactly how much oil was actually flowing into the water.

The idea is illogical. Are we really expected to believe that BP and the Coast Guard would respond in the same way to a spill of 5,000 barrels a day—an early estimate—to one where 60,000 barrels a day are flowing into the Gulf, which is the high-end of current estimates? And indeed, as the government has slowly increased its estimate of the spill rate, it’s also amplified its response on the water and along the coast.

Yet BP is still acting as if it the size of the spill doesn’t really matter, as chief operating officer Doug Suttles—he of the old BP/Coast Guard joint press briefings—made clear in an interview yesterday with the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

“The flow rate has never impacted the response,” said BP America’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, in an interview with The Times-Picayune. He went on to say the process of estimating how much oil was flowing into the Gulf — a task he said BP does not involve itself with — is “extraordinarily imprecise and we took a view very early on that we didn’t think you could do it and we didn’t think it was relevant either.”

But as estimates of the flow rate have steadily grown — starting at zero, in the wake of the spill, and inching up to an early estimate of 1,000 barrels per day, then 5,000, and most recently up to 60,000 barrels a day — the political pressure on BP and the company’s efforts to contain the oil have ratcheted up just as steadily.

Exactly. As the newspaper goes on to point out, on June 11 Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson sent a letter to none other than Doug Suttles complaining that BP’s plan for collecting the oil was based on unrealistically low flow rates

And on at least one occasion, federal officials chided BP for relying on outdated estimates and not bringing enough resources to bear as a result. A June 11 letter to Suttles from the federal on-scene coordinator, Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, said BP’s plan for collecting the oil was based on unrealistically low flow rates. Watson ordered BP to put more resources into the effort to reflect new, substantially higher estimates. And as Marian Wang at ProPublica writes, sizing a leak was an important part of BP’s official response plan:

But as we’ve pointed out in earlier posts [3], BP’s own Oil Spill Response document for the Gulf of Mexico said that determining the size and volume of a spill was “critical to initiating and sustaining an effective response [4],” and that measuring the spill is “the priority issue [5].”

In addition, determining the full size of the spill will be necessary when calculating BP’s hefty oil spill fines. The federal government charges based on the drop, ranging from $1,100 a barrel to $4,300 barrel, depending on the degree of negligence. Which of course would seem to give a BP a reason not to make spill measurement a full priority. That doesn’t explain why the government didn’t try harder, although in his press briefing today, Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen said that there would be flow sensors installed in the new containment system that is being slowly put together over the spill site. “We want to get the proper pressure reading,” Allen said.

As for Suttles and BP, I don’t know why they’re still trying to give us the same, discredited line. In the Times-Picayune interview, Suttles says that “threw everything” it had at the blown Macondo well. That much might be true—but if so, it’s a rarity.