BP’s bad math on the spill

June 10, 2010

THEY'RE NO Matt Taibbi, but the New York Times' Clifford Krauss and John Broder's descriptions of the leaking offshore oil well as "a raging undersea beast" and "one hell of a well" constitute the most accurate, if not poetic, estimate to date of the scale of BP's leak at the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

As followers of the spill have heard, BP refuses to use the most reliable scientific methods for estimating its scale, insisting that their response would be just as energetic no matter the size. "There's just no way to measure it," lied a senior BP vice president. Another spokesman said, "the estimated rate of flow would not affect either the direction or scale of our response, which is the largest in history."

It was outrageous enough when that first came out. At the time, we could all tell that BP was just hoping to spare themselves responsibility for the largest oil spill in U.S. history merely by obscuring its size. And recent revelations that, since the spill, BP has awarded investors with over $10 billion in payouts versus just $1 billion spent on spill relief confirmed that they were doing all that they could to protect their image, not the Gulf Coast.

But most outrageous is the news, reported by Krauss and Broder, "After two days of trying to gradually close the four vents on the capping device, engineers on Sunday decided to keep some open when they realized that more oil was being captured than could be processed on a drill ship floating in the gulf above."

The "capping device" refers to the latest (and so far most successful) effort to capture the leaking oil. The first effort to cap the spill was called off when the build-up of ice-like crystals plugged the cap where it was designed to divert the oil up a riser pipe to the surface. The four vents were installed on this new cap to control the flow of leaking oil up the riser, and therefore control the formation of the crystals.

The good news is that the crystals are under control, and they are finally siphoning off 10,000 to 15,000 barrels a day. The bad news is that since BP has maintained its unreasonably low estimate of 5,000 barrels a day, they only brought one drill ship to the scene for processing siphoned oil. They're ready to close off those vents and siphon off more oil, but it may be a full week before another ship arrives.

Maybe if oil spill expert-estimators Richard Camilli and Andy Bowen from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution weren't "uninvited" by BP in the first weeks of the spill, relief engineers could have planned appropriately. And maybe if BP's international fleet of oil tankers wasn't permitted to resume business as usual, they wouldn't be short-handed now that they finally are making some headway.

A thousand questions remain unanswered about the spill, but one is finally getting answered: the spill is many, many times initial, puny estimates. The latest conservative guesses put the size at 25,000 barrels a day.

That's 1.125 million barrels in just 45 days since the spill began. Exxon Valdez was 11 million gallons. With 42 gallons in a barrel, that's more than 47 million gallons.

That's four Exxon Valdezes. Another week, and it will be five.
Eugene Dardenne, New Orleans

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