BP Head Disputes Oil Estimates

Just how much oil is billowing into the Gulf every day became a controversy this week, because the size of the spill dictates what techniques can be used to cap it. Host Scott Simon talks to BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles about the company's efforts to stem the flow.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

If you go to BP.com, you'll see quite a video - a live stream showing oil continuing to spill underwater at the side of a collapsed offshore BP drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. How much oil is billowing into the Gulf every day became a controversy this week because the size of the spill dictates what techniques can be used to cap it.

Doug Suttles is chief operating officer of BP. He joins us from the Joint Information Center in Robert, Louisiana. Mr. Suttles, thanks for being with us.

Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (Chief Operating Officer, BP): You bet, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And how much oil is billowing into the Gulf right now?

Mr. SUTTLES: Well, Scott, I precisely don't know. We've been trying to estimate the flow since very early on in the spill, and when I say we, it's actually BP, NOAA, the Coast Guard and others. We can monitor what comes out of that pipe, but that's visual. It's very difficult to measure that. There's no meter. But what we can also do is actually look at the expression of it on the surface, 'cause we can use aerial techniques to try to map how much oil is there and then see how much we collect or burn and the other techniques and look at that difference. And those are the techniques we use to give an estimate, and 5,000 barrels a day was the best estimate we could do, but we've also stressed since the beginning that that number is very uncertain because we can't meter it.

SIMON: Now, you know there's independent scientists who've made their own estimates at NPR's request, and they've come up with a substantially higher figure than 5,000. They say as much as 70,000 barrels a day.

Mr. SUTTLES: I've heard those estimates and seen them and I don't believe it's possible that it's anywhere near that number. Of course, I can't - since I can't meter it, I can't actually say it couldn't be. But all of our techniques would say that that's highly unlikely. And I think some of the reasons these estimates may not be able to accurately calculate is there's a large volume of gas coming out of the end of that pipe with the oil.

And in addition to that, we, particularly over the last few days, when we've had very good weather, we've actually seen the size of the spill and the amount of oil on the surface go down. So those are the things that lead me to believe that those estimates are way too high.

SIMON: What I'm trying to understand is if, and I will split the difference, but let's say that it's 30,000 barrels a day that are spilling - if you try to top kill, as I guess it's called, seal the leak, cap it off, do you risk using a technique that could make the spill even worse?

Mr. SUTTLES: No, I don't believe that's the case, Scott, and we don't think the rate's anywhere near that high. But the technique we're using we don't believe can make the situation worsen. And one of our philosophies since we started this was to make sure we wouldn't take any action which could make it worse. And that's why it's taken this much time to get to the point of trying this.

We've been doing diagnostics and doing the planning and making sure that it couldn't get worse, or if it is, we have contingencies in place to contain it.

SIMON: Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and Lisa Jackson of the EPA say that your company has fallen short - is their phrase - in providing information on the spill.

Mr. SUTTLES: Well, you know, they've made a written request of us to provide more data and more information, particularly around monitoring. We're going to do our very best to comply with that. But this has been - I've been at this, Scott, since two hours after the rig caught on fire, and I have been here in Robert at the command center every single day. And I can tell you, it's an extraordinarily open environment.

We have over 400 people in this command center. Only about 60 of those are BP and the rest are government officials, or most of the rest are government officials.

SIMON: So, what do you say to people that contend BP is concealing the extent of the spill?

Mr. SUTTLES: Well, I clearly disagree. We don't have any reason to do that. I think if you look at what we've done since this thing happened, I just ask folks to judge us on our actions. I mean, we've spent over $700 million. We have about 23,000 people working on this now, and I believe that demonstrates our company's commitment to do the right thing.

And as a person leading this response, I actually am not constrained on any resources. I would just say, you know, look at what we're doing. And I really don't know anything else we could be doing than what we are doing.

SIMON: Mr. Suttles, would you expect people who live in a town like Robert, Louisiana, or people who live all along the Gulf, to feel comfortable about oil drilling from this day forward?

Mr. SUTTLES: Well, I think a lot of the people in this region, many of the family members - one of the family members, a man on a fishing boat and another one works on an offshore platform - it's been a part of this region for many, many decades. I think ultimately they believe that oil and gas drilling is good. The surveys show that.

But clearly it scares them. It worries them deeply and they're scared because they haven't seen something like this and they worry it might change things forever. I don't believe it will. I think we can clean this up and I think the Gulf of Mexico is robust and will fully recover. But I believe ultimately they want both to occur.

I think they want oil and gas to continue here, 'cause it's been a part of this region for many, many decades.

SIMON: Doug Suttles is the chief operating officer of BP, joined us from the joint information center in Robert, Louisiana. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SUTTLES: Thanks, Scott.

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