The Difficulties Of Measuring The Oil Spill

Oil companies fighting the blowout off Louisiana say they have no idea how much oil is flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. But marine scientists say there are well-established methods for measuring the flow from a situation like this, either using commercially available instruments or by analyzing videos of the source. The U.S. Coast Guard has video of the gusher, but they have not been made public. The Coast Guard admits its figure of 5,000 barrels a day is just a rough estimate.

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There's no reliable figure for just how much oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico right now. The Coast Guard's much quoted figure of 5,000 barrels a day is at best a rough estimate. Another independent estimate is four or five times higher than that.

Scientists say it's possible to have a much better figure. But as NPR's Richard Harris reports, that information is either not being gathered or not being shared with the public.

RICHARD HARRIS: BP's policy about this is clear: They do not say how much oil is coming from the broken pipe in the damaged well at the seafloor. Here's senior vice president Kent Wells in a telephone press briefing, Monday.

Mr. KENT WELLS (Senior Vice President, BP): I think what we've been very clear about is we dont know what it is. There's just no way to measure it.

HARRIS: But scientists used to working in the deep sea say thats not the case. For example, Timothy Crone at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory studies natural super hot jets of material on the deep seafloor in even more extreme and difficult circumstances than the BP well. There are several ways to measure the flow of this material. One way is to shoot videos from unmanned subs called ROVs and analyze those images. Crone says those methods should work just as well with oil.

Dr. TIMOTHY CRONE (Research Scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory): It's probably not very difficult if you had an ROV and, you know, a lot of access to the site. You could go down there and probably without much difficulty, just looking at video, make a very rough estimate.

HARRIS: And BP does have ROVs on the scene. In addition to video, there are instruments that measure the flow directly with spinning propellers and methods akin to highway radar guns that work well under the deep sea.

Ian McDonald is at Florida State University.

Dr. IAN MCDONALD (Biological Oceanographer, Florida State University): These measures are well within the means of science. This is not a new and unproven area. And if they're not doing it, then I hate to say it, but it sounds like they're choosing not to do it.

HARRIS: In fact, BP might have had a chance to measure the flow rate directly last weekend when they put a giant dome over the biggest leak. The dome immediately stopped up and became, in essence, a giant measuring cup.

Dr. MCDONALD: The rate at which that dome filled up wouldve been a very accurate measurement of the flow volume - the total mixed oil and gas flow out of that jet.

HARRIS: McDonald says this information could become very important since BP is currently waging a war on the seafloor against the leaking oil.

Dr. MCDONALD: We need to know if we're winning or losing that battle.

HARRIS: BP is planning to install one device to capture oil from one leak and they have plans to clog up a device at the bottom of the seafloor, called the blowout preventer. BP hopes this move will make matters better, not worse.

Dr. MCDONALD: And as they do so, it would be good to have some verifiable measurement to show that, you know, that it's working or that its not working.

HARRIS: Before and after flow measurements would be a good way to figure that out. Norman Guinasso, from Texas A&M University, says scientists have known that video exists. Theyve seen it on the TV news.

Dr. NORMAN GUINASSO (Director, Geochemical and Environmental Research Group, Texas A&M University): We got a glimpse of it in the headquarters of our Homeland Security Department, because it was a backdrop to the secretary talking about some other issue. But, you know, that this data exists, I think the public would be interested in seeing it.

HARRIS: This afternoon, BP did release a bit of video from the seafloor in response to requests from news reporters earlier in the week. It was not immediately clear whether the quality or quantity will be good enough for scientific analysis. BP says the company wants its workers to focus on stopping the flow.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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