New Oil Estimates Show Spill Rate Much Higher

The federal government has come up with a new estimate of the size of the Gulf oil spill. The figures indicate the blown-out well may have spewed as much as 2.1 million gallons of oil per day. The estimate indicates the leak already has put 4 to 8 times more oil into the water than the Exxon Valdez spill.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And Im Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

For almost two months now, the country has watched oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, the federal government is coming up with what it says is a realistic estimate of the size of that spill. And the new figure means this leak has already put four to eight times more oil into the water than the Exxon Valdez spill.

NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins me now to talk about how the government arrived at its latest estimate. Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Deborah.

AMOS: So tell us about this new figure. They now say 20 to 40 thousand barrels a day - thats hugely different than the original numbers.

HARRIS: That's true. And let's go back to a little bit of that history, because the government started out by judging the spill simply by looking at the oil on the surface of the water. That first number was a thousand barrels a day, a very modest - well, still a big spill but nothing compared to what we're talking about here.

Independent scientists though, examining satellite data on their own, looked at it and said that number appears to be really low. The government eventually bumped that figure up to 5,000 barrels a day, which was a figure that we heard for throughout most of this spill. But actually then they pretty much just stopped measuring it.

However, in mid-May, BP released a grainy 30-second video of oil spilling out from a pipe underwater. NPR asked a couple of scientists, who measure flow rates using well-established scientific techniques, to estimate the flow just looking at the video of the oil flowing up from the bottom of the ocean. And they concluded that the 5,000 barrels a day figure was way, way low. And they said 70,000 barrels a day, including oil and gas together. We now know that there's a lot of gas in there. So that's actually that first estimate actually turns out to be pretty much on the money.

AMOS: Yeah, and that number got a lot of play. What happened after that number got out?

HARRIS: Well, interestingly, for about a week not much happened. Both BP and the government said, well, we're already throwing everything we have at the spill, so the number doesnt really matter. They said it could be high, it could be low, we dont really know.

But after about a week the government did decide, okay, we do need to get to the bottom of this. They pulled together a team of independent scientists; they called it the Flow Rate Technical Group. And they were asked to use a variety of techniques, including these video techniques to come up with a more credible number.

AMOS: And what was that better number?

HARRIS: Well, at first that group said they didnt really have enough information to make a good estimate. But it did at least put together a lower bound on the figure. They said the leak was at least 12 to 25,000 barrels a day, and that put it above the Exxon Valdez mark. It created a lot of attention. But people forgot, thats actually a lower limit - that wasnt the actual best estimate. And thats what we're talking about today, is a much more realistic best estimate.

AMOS: And now we're all the way up to 40,000 barrels a day. So how did they get that number?

HARRIS: Well, the committee met earlier this week. They had more data, they -and just - more videos, more techniques, and they basically went back with better information and they were able to come up with a better estimate. And it's also important to remember, though, these estimates, these videos that they were looking at were based on videos that were made before BP did some work underwater.

You may recall they cut off this bent pipe. And so all these numbers - the 20 to 40 figure is still based on before cutting the pipes. So these are - this is a good way to estimate the overall amount of flow, but not necessarily what the flow is right now.

AMOS: But is it possible that even more is coming out since they cut that pipe?

HARRIS: It is indeed possible. BP engineers have estimated that the flow could increase by up to 20 percent once they cut the riser pipe. One scientist is on record saying he thinks it could be a lot higher, although he was just kind of eyeballing the plume, and it does look more dramatic.

But I talked yesterday to Timothy Crone at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and he actually measured the flow using some of these computer techniques. And he says the good news is it does not appear - in his calculation - that the flow increased that much when they cut the riser pipe.

This flow rate group is going to do its own estimate on that, and I hope we'll actually hear an official number about that next week.

AMOS: Now, they are capturing some of the oil. Make some comparisons about what they're capturing and whats still flowing out.

HARRIS: Right, they're capturing about 15,000 barrels a day. But that could mean they're capturing only about half or even a little less than half of the oil. And BP is planning to increase its oil-capturing capability next week, but that still may not be enough to do it, and there - may be able to capture 20 and burn 28,000 barrels a day. So there still could be oil spewing into the ocean.

They have - it'll be a couple of weeks before they actually have equipment in place to capture as much as we're now hearing is coming out.

AMOS: And quickly, did they get ahead by capturing oil - by cutting the pipe and capturing oil?

HARRIS: Yeah, they are better than not capturing any oil at all. But obviously if BP had known how much oil was coming out, they could have maybe been better prepared to capture what is coming out right now.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

AMOS: NPR's Richard Harris.

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