If we've learned nothing else during the current oil-spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, it's that it pays to be cautious about reports of progress in containing the gusher.
That said, BP said Sunday that its oil-capture rate is now about 10,000 barrels a day with the cap it lowered onto the broken pipe a mile under the surface of the Gulf collecting perhaps the majority of oil being spewed.
Since BP has said in the past that it didn't know how much oil was being pumped into the Gulf's waters each day, it's only reasonable that a skeptic might ask how the energy giant knows 10,000-plus barrels accounts for most of the oil being released by the broken well?
In any event, BP chairman Tony Hayward told a British radio show about the latest capture rate.
The BBC reported the following:
Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Mr Hayward said: "As we speak, the containment cap is producing around 10,000 barrels of oil a day to the surface."
Asked what amount of the estimate that represented, the BP chief executive said it was expected to be "the majority, probably the vast majority" of the oil gushing out.
"We have a further containment system to implement in the course of this coming week which will be in place by next weekend so when those two are in place, we would very much hope to be containing the vast majority of the oil."
His company, he said, was going to stop the leak and take care of the consequences.
A group of experts convened by the Obama Administration have estimated that 12,000 to 19,000 barrels could be escaping from the uncontrolled well each day. Some experts have estimated much higher than that.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of BP's severest critics on Capitol Hill, while welcoming BP's announcement that it's capturing a large amount of oil, asked the question: compared to what?
He sent BP America CEO Lamar McKay the following letter:
Dear Mr. McKay:
BP has now completed severing the broken riser pipe from the Deepwater Horizon well and has placed a cap on the top of the blowout preventer. BP has now begun to collect oil through this cap. However, as is evident from the live video feeds being shot on the ocean floor, substantial quantities of oil continue to escape from around the sides of the cap and from vents on the cap. These video feeds have also shown BP applying subsea dispersant into the gushing oil plumes escaping from around the cap.
The critical question at this time is: "how much oil is escaping into the environment?" BP CEO Tony Hayward has indicated that the cap is capturing 10,000 barrels per day. Mr. Hayward has also indicated that he expects soon to be able to capture "the vast majority" of the oil spewing from the well. However, conservative official estimates of the flow rate indicated that prior to the severing of the riser, somewhere between 12,000-19,000 barrels of oil were flowing from the well. In addition, government officials have suggested that by severing the kinked and broken riser pipe, flow rates could increase by up to 20 percent.
At this time, BP appears to know how much oil is being captured, which is encouraging. Yet BP still does not appear to know precisely how much oil is actually escaping, which is discouraging. Estimating the size of the spill at the source, instead of when it approaches the shore, continues to be the best way to gauge the leak. We need to know the amount of total oil flowing from the well, taking into account both the amount of oil being collected, and the amount being released into the ocean environment. This is critical, not only in terms of the efficacy of the temporary cap solution, but also in terms of the size and extent of the needed spill response and the ultimate effects on the environment. Finally, accurate flow rate information will be required to determine BP's financial liability in terms of fines, which could be as high as $4,300 per barrel.
Therefore please answer the following questions immediately:
1) What is the total estimated volume of oil flowing from the well, taking into account both the amount of oil being captured and the amount of oil that is being released into the ocean? What is the basis for this estimate?
2) Prior to placement of the cap, but after complete severing of the riser pipe, did BP estimate the volume of flow from the well? Did BP determine whether the severing of the riser pipe did, in fact, increase the overall amount of flow? If so, by what percentage did the flow increase? If not when will BP perform this calculation? Please take account of any such calculation in the answer to question 1.
3) With regard to the estimate of 10,000 barrels of oil per day being recovered, is the material being recovered at the surface just oil or is it a mix of oil, seawater and other materials? How does the answer to this question affect your response to question 1? Is the 10,000 barrels per day estimate for just oil?
4) What is BP going to do with the oil it is recovering?
Edward J. Markey, Chairman
Energy and Environment Subcommittee
Energy and Commerce Committee