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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New Oil Estimates Show Spill Rate Much Higher

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New Oil Estimates Show Spill Rate Much Higher

New Oil Estimates Show Spill Rate Much Higher

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


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 - that's hugely different than the original numbers.

HARRIS: 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: 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 didn't 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, that's actually a lower limit - that wasn't the actual best estimate. And that's 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: 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: 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 what's still flowing out.

HARRIS: 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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