Gulf Oil Spill Estimate Rises; Landfall Anticipated

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Government officials said Thursday that a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is worse than previously believed. A drilling rig exploded and sank off the Louisiana coast April 20, leaving 11 workers missing and presumed dead. The wreckage may be spewing 5,000 barrels a day instead of the 1,000 previously estimated.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's follow up on that huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, because there are conflicting reports about how large it might really be. The Coast Guard is saying that spill is more extensive than first believed. Officials say an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil per day are leaking into the Gulf. That's after the explosion at a rig last week.

The original estimates were a lot smaller, about 1,000 barrels per day. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has been looking into this. He's in New Orleans.

Hi, Wade. So what exactly is known here?

WADE GOODWYN: Well, I don't think the size of the slick has changed. What has it's not like we woke up this morning and suddenly there was five times the size of the slick out there. What has changed are the guesses about how many barrels of oil make up that slick.

Imagine somebody spills a cup of coffee on the table and then you and I come along and look at the brown liquid and we say, You know, that looks like that's about 12 ounces of coffee on that table. And then a week later we come back and say, I don't know, maybe it's more than that, 60 ounces of coffee...

INSKEEP: Maybe more of a Grande or a Venti than just a small.

GOODWYN: But it's not like the size of the spill has grown, except for the fact that it's like we're at the pancake house and there's a crack in our coffee cup and we have a bottomless cup of coffee and it keeps pouring out. That's always been true.

INSKEEP: Well, I suppose we should we can get to the bottom line here though. The point is that oil is still leaking out. Nobody doubts that, right?

GOODWYN: Right. I mean 1,000 barrels a day always seemed like a nice round number, as does 5,000 barrels a day. A remote operated vehicle found another hole in the riser where oil is leaking out, and that's part of what the revision is about. But BP says, you know, we've always kind of been estimating based on how much oil is coming from downstream of the rig, always. But now NOAA says that we're looking at satellite pictures and we think more is coming out; our estimate is more is coming out every day.

INSKEEP: NOAA, that's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I suppose this leads to the an even more bottom line question, which is: How dangerous is this oil slick, however rapidly it may be increasing?

GOODWYN: It's dangerous. I mean the biggest problem is, it's not a finite slick. It keeps growing every day. They can't cap this well. And it doesn't look like they're going to be able to cap this well for weeks. So it's a spill that is spreading across the Gulf. It's threatening Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. And if it takes them four weeks or they have even talked about three months before they can stop that. You can imagine the kind of mess it'll make.

INSKEEP: There's talk of the Defense Department getting involved here. What role would they play?

GOODWYN: Well, that's the first time we've heard it, was last night, is that they're talking - the Defense Department might come in. I guess they could bring in planes to help bomb the spill with dispersant. That's a possibility. You could use personnel to try to spread booms. But one of the things we're limited by is how many feet of booms we have out there, and right now I think it's 500,000 feet of booms are available. I mean when that runs out, I'm not sure what they're going to do.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Wade, can you just set the slick on fire?

GOODWYN: You can, but you only burn off about three percent of it, where it's very thick and emulsified. Other than that you're going to have to find a traditional way.

INSKEEP: There's got to be some way, you're saying, to stop this oil before it comes ashore, and if not, it's going to do some damage. That's what you're saying.

GOODWYN: That's right. I mean and it's going to come ashore Friday or Saturday. It's going to hit Louisiana, Mississippi River Delta.

INSKEEP: Wade, thanks very much.

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Wade Goodwyn helping us to sort through the facts of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Official estimates now range from 1,000 up to 5,000 barrels per day of oil being added to that spill.

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