Gulf Oil Spill Now the Biggest In U.S. History

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As BP labors for another day to choke off the leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, dire new government estimates showed the disaster has easily eclipsed the Exxon Valdez as the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The government says the well has been spewing out far more than 5,000 barrels a day which was the previous estimate.

DAVID GREENE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Overnight, BP resumed pumping heavy drilling mud into the blown-out well a mile underwater in the Gulf. BP says it could be another day or two or maybe more before we know whether it worked. The federal government now estimates this is the worst spill in U.S. history, far surpassing the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. The government also said yesterday that the well has been spewing out far more than 5,000 barrels a day. That's the previous estimate that has been widely used.

NPR's Richard Harris is with us to talk more about this. Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What can you tell us about BP's top kill procedure?

HARRIS: Well, BP actually stopped and restarted pumping fluid into the well. This is called drilling mud or drilling fluid. It's really heavy, dense material. And they, in fact, even had to go back and resupply their ships with this heavy drilling fluid. It's clear because most of this fluid is actually ending up on the seafloor. It's being pushed right out of the well by the oil and gas that's coming up. They also say they are resuming pumping overnight, and they hope that, you know, eventually, they'll figure out some way to put a stop to this spill.

MONTAGNE: And as I just said, the government says the flow rate of that oil is much higher than the figure the BP and the Coast Guard have been using.

HARRIS: That's true. Originally, they said it was only 1,000 barrels a day, then they went up to 5,000 barrels a day. But to put that number in perspective, a fire hose, one and a half-inch nozzle on a fire hose is only 3,000 barrels a day. So this was a pretty lowball estimate, as it turns out. And the government has now acknowledged that, yeah, actually it's at least 12,000, maybe 25,000 barrels a day. And in fact, those figures still represent a lower limit. It's possible that as they refine those figures, the flow rate will be higher.

But - even given those lower limit numbers, we're now looking at maybe two or three Exxon Valdezes worth a month, possibly more.

MONTAGNE: Richard, why were both BP and the federal government so far off in their numbers?

HARRIS: Well, the government was relying on looking down on oil on the water and trying to eyeball how much was there and figure that out. At a news conference yesterday, President Obama acknowledged that there was actually something much better at hand that they could've used to estimate the flow volume, and that's information coming straight from the sea floor.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: At that point, BP already had a camera down there, but wasn't fully forthcoming in terms of what did those pictures look like. And when you set it up in time lapse photography, experts could then make a more accurate determination.

HARRIS: In fact, there were more than a dozen high-resolution video cameras down there looking at the spill. And government officials were even using those feeds for press conference backdrops, but I guess they didn't fully appreciate the scientific value of them. Finally, when BP released a little clip of that -video clip of that a couple of weeks ago, NPR asks some scientists to review that clip, and they concluded that the spill was far, far greater than the official estimate.

MONTAGNE: And how close were they to coming up with a figure that the government is using now?

HARRIS: Well, at the time, Professor Steve Wereley from Purdue University concluded that there was a total of about 70,000 barrels a day that's both oil and gas spewing out of the end of the pipe.

Professor STEVE WERELEY (Mechanical Engineering, Purdue University): I came up with that number based on 30 seconds of grainy video and about two hours of water.

HARRIS: And in fact, that number for the total flow of oil and gas does turn out to be pretty close. What BP couldn't tell us at the time was how much of that flow was gas and how much was oil. We now know that it was mostly gas. So that pretty well explains the difference. And Professor Worley is actually on the federal task force that came up with that new and more authoritative number, which is oil only, not oil and gas.

MONTAGNE: And what happens to the gas?

HARRIS: Well, scientists are eager to figure that out, because it turns out it's a huge amount that's going into the ocean. Some scientists suspect that most of it is actually just dissolving in ocean water. And if that's true, it will eventually be consumed by bacteria in the ocean. In the course of eating the methane, though, they will also be consuming a lot of oxygen. And that raises questions about whether there would - could be possible dead zones in the Gulf as a result of that. And that's going to be subject of scientific exploration over the next couple of weeks.

MONTAGNE: Well, in the meantime, the well seems to be continuing to spew out oil. What happens if the top kill option simply doesn't work at all?

HARRIS: Well, they have the next plan lined up for early next week. They will use a remotely operated submarine to chop off the pipe that's currently sticking out at the top of the blowout preventer, and lower on a device called the lower marine riser package. It is a big pipe that runs up to the surface. And they hope this will be a more effective way to collect the spilling oil and gas and bring it to ships.

MONTAGNE: Okay. So more options. NPR's Richard Harris, thanks very much.

HARRIS: Sure.

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