Government To Announce Updated Oil Spill Estimate

The U.S. government on Thursday is issuing a new estimate on the size of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

President Obama will announce later today that he will halt further permits for new wells for six months. Also this morning, the head of the agency that oversees offshore oil drilling has resigned, and government scientists have announced the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is now the worst in U.S. history, far worse than we were first told. NPR's Richard Harris joins us to discuss all of this.

Hi, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning.

GREENE: So what are these new numbers that we're getting today about the amount of oil that has come out of that well?

HARRIS: Well, we've been hearing for a couple of weeks now that the 5,000-barrels-a-day figure that BP and the government have been using is dubious. We had some scientists look at video for us, for NPR, and they said no. That number's way, way off. And, in fact, the 5,000 number is way off. The government now says it's at least 12,000 barrels a day, and quite possibly more than 25,000 barrels a day. So that's substantially more, many times more than the official estimate.

GREENE: A huge change. I mean, this could change the scope of this entire disaster.

HARRIS: It absolutely does. To put it in perspective, the Exxon Valdez spill was 250,000 barrels a day. We're now looking at a spill that's at least 400,000 barrels, likely 875,000 barrels - and, actually, quite possibly larger than that. And the numbers, I should explain where they come from. There are two different sources. One was a recent aerial survey, looking down on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and trying to, essentially, assess it from the air. But, of course, that doesn't account for the oil that's been scooped up, oil that's been burned, oil that's still sunk under the sea, and also, actually, the lighter elements of this oil have evaporated. So looking at the surface - which has been a common way that they've tried to estimate oil - actually gives you a low figure.

This government task force also did look at the videos that we've been talking about for the past couple of weeks, and the figure that they came up with there are big numbers. But they also say that this is sort of a best-case scenario for them, and they're still working to refine numbers for this, the most realistic case. This is best case, not necessarily right case.

GREENE: And just to go back to those big numbers you mentioned from Exxon Valdez that we remember so well, those 250, maybe as high as 875 barrels. Those are - that's over what period of time?

HARRIS: Well, that's the total spill.

GREENE: Total (unintelligible).

HARRIS: Exxon Valdez was 250,000. This is maybe three times that.

GREENE: How does this affect the response now? I mean, if the numbers we're getting are much larger than we expected, does this change everything?

HARRIS: Well, the government has said all along, along with BP, that they've had an all-out assault on this well - on this spill, that they're basically doing everything they can. So it didn't really matter if it was a thousand barrels or 100,000 barrels. They were essentially doing everything they could. So that didn't really matter.

What does matter, though, is helping scientists figure out how much oil is still underwater. There's probably quite a bit of oil that's trapped under layers of ocean water, and this could help refine that. It could also affect BP's liability. And, of course, it certainly affects public perception now that this has clearly become the worst U.S. oil spill in history.

GREENE: And we've been reporting the work of scientists who've said the oil and the gas spewing out of that well could be 10 times bigger than the official estimate the government and BP have used. It seems it's not quite that bad yet.

GREENE: That's correct. The scientists have been very careful to say - and we've actually been quite careful to report - that their estimate was for the total flow out of the well, which includes oil and gas. And it seems as though their flow rate was - estimates were actually very close from their original estimates, which just took them a couple of hours to do. And they kind of proved the point that this should not be that hard a task to really come up with a reasonable flow rate, without spending a lot of effort.

What the big unknown was when we reported that initially was how much of that flow was oil, and how much was gas. And BP didn't know when we put those stories originally on the air. They've now started to refine that number. It bounces around a little bit. But it appears that it's more gas than oil. So that, of course, reduces the total amount of oil that's in the mix. So that's sort of good news for the Gulf, certainly. But it also validates what our scientists have been telling us about how easy or difficult it is, actually, to get these numbers.

GREENE: That's NPR's Richard Harris. Thanks for being here.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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