NPR logo Feds Knew Early Spill Was Worse Than They Let On: Reports

Feds Knew Early Spill Was Worse Than They Let On: Reports

Information is emerging that points to the federal government knowing more about the severity of the BP oil spill from the earliest stages of the disaster than it initially let on to the public.

For instance, ABC News reported Thursday evening that the Coast Guard and other federal agencies had access to BP's videos of oil spewing from the broken well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. But for some reason federal officials didn't force BP to make it public. Neither did it communicate the magnitude of the leak to the public, according to the ABC News report.

An excerpt from the ABC News report:

But inside the unified command center, where BP and federal agencies were orchestrating the spill response, video monitors had already displayed hours of footage they did not make public. The images showed a far more dire situation unfolding underwater. The footage filmed by submarines showed three separate leaks, including one that was unleashing a torrent of oil into the Gulf.

BP officials said they made all the video available to federal officials.

"The video has been available to the unified command from the very beginning," said Mark Proegler, a BP spokesman. "It's always been here from the beginning. They had it."

Coast Guard officials told ABC News that BP refused to allow them to release the more startling images, arguing they were proprietary. But at the time, the agency was doing little to convey to the world what the images were showing. Coast Guard Admiral Mary Landry was sticking with estimates, calculated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which put the spill's size at about 5,000 barrels a day for several weeks. Coast Guard officials said they were focused on the response, and advised the public not to worry about just how much oil was pouring into the water.

Meanwhile, the Center for Public Integrity reported that the Coast Guard knew very quickly after the accident happened on April 20 that it had the potential to be the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

An excerpt:

Coast Guard officials grasped the potential threat of a catastrophic spill within hours of the explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, estimating that 8,000 barrels a day of crude oil could possibly gush out of the well in the event of a complete blowout, according to Coast Guard logs.

Over the first three days of the crisis — long before the public heard of a leak — the minimum estimate for a total well blowout ballooned eight-fold and the president was warned by his top aides that a major spill larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez might be coming, according to the documents and interviews...

Then there's this stunning piece of information:

... By April 23, the Coast Guard logs include a new estimate that a full blowout could result in a spill of 64,000 to 110,000 barrels per day, the logs show.

The federal government didn't give the public any inkling that these sorts of numbers were possible.

Why not? What was the problem with giving the public the worst-case scenario? If nothing else, it would have allowed the public to be prepared for the worst.

As the ABC News story reports, there was an incentive for BP to downplay the amount of oil being put into the ocean by their gusher.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said the apparent suppression of the tapes prevented an independent analysis of how much oil was spilling, a move that might eventually save BP millions, since federal fines are based on $1,000 a day per barrel.

The difference between a spill of 5,000 barrels a day and 20,000 barrels a day is $15 million a day. "It clearly tells us why they drug their feet to release these tapes," Nelson said. "I guess they were hoping that they could get it under control and this whole problem would go away."

So BP's incentive for low-balling the estimates on the spill are readily apparent. But what was behind the federal government's decision to be less transparent than it could have been?