New Estimates Raise Amount of Oil Flow
June 15, 2010
A government panel on Tuesday released yet another estimate of the amount of oil flowing from BP’s damaged well, declaring that as much as 60,000 barrels a day could be spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.
That is roughly 2.5 million gallons of oil a day, and it means an amount equal to the Exxon Valdez spill could be gushing from the well about every four days.
The flow was already categorized as the largest offshore oil spill in the nation’s history, but the new figures sharply increase previous estimates. Scientists on Tuesday estimated that the flow rate ranged from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day — up from the rate they issued only last week, of 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day. It continues a pattern in which every new estimate of the flow rate has been dramatically higher than the one before.
With BP capturing roughly 15,000 barrels a day, the new estimate suggests that as much as 45,000 barrels a day is escaping into the gulf.
The new estimate is far above the figure of 5,000 barrels a day that the government and BP clung to for weeks after the spill started, following the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. That estimate was made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration using methods not recommended for large oil spills, and it came under attack from professors and advocacy groups who said the spill had to be larger. Time has proven those critics right.
The latest estimate reflects a possible increase in the flow rate that occurred after BP cut an underwater pipe called a riser on June 3 to install a new device to capture part of the oil. It is based on new information, including high-resolution video made after the riser cut, and on pressure readings taken by a device that was inserted this week into the equipment at the sea floor. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, was personally involved in using those pressure readings to help make the latest calculation.
“This estimate brings together several scientific methodologies and the latest information from the sea floor, and represents a significant step forward in our effort to put a number on the oil that is escaping from BP’s well,” Secretary Chu said in a statement. “As we continue to collect additional data and refine these estimates, it is important to realize that the numbers can change.”
The numbers came on a day when BP’s ill-fated relief efforts to stop the damaged well hit yet another snag, underscoring once again the fragility of the containment effort: lightning struck the vessel that had been collecting the oil from the well, suspending operations for nearly five hours from 9:30 a.m. Central time until 2:15 p.m.
BP said in a statement that the fire, which started after lightning struck the derrick — the familiar-looking tower used to lift the piping — was quickly extinguished, and there were no injuries. But as a precaution, the containment operation was shut down for about five hours.
The containment cap is still the most successful method BP has had in collecting some of the oil that has been leaking from the undersea well, and it has only been partly effective. A series of attempts by BP to cap or plug the well before June 3 failed.
The new calculation of the flow of oil, if it holds up, suggests that BP’s latest plans for capturing oil will be adequate, if only barely.
BP had only able to collect about 15,000 barrels a day at its peak with the containment cap, but the company has outlined plans to deploy new equipment so that it can capture a minimum of 40,000 barrels a day by the end of June, and a minimum of 60,000 barrels a day by mid-July.
If the new range of flow estimates proves correct, and if BP is ultimately found guilty of gross negligence in actions it took that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that would mean the company could be assessed fines of up to $258 million a day. Those fines could come on top of payments for cleanup costs and economic damage to Gulf Coast businesses.
Fearful that the spill could ultimately cost BP tens of billions of dollars, investors have driven the company’s market valuation down by 48 percent since the spill began, erasing $91 billion of shareholder value. BP shares rose more than 2 percent during regular trading on Tuesday, but then gave up all that gain and more in after-hours trading, following release of the new flow estimates.
In a separate development, BP started to make good Tuesday on a three-week-old promise, declaring that it would release $25 million to a group of universities to pay for research into the effects of the oil spill. The is the first installment of $500 million that the company has pledged for a research effort lasting a decade.
Louisiana State University will get $5 million of the initial money. An additional $10 million will go to the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of 20 institutions with marine science interests in that state, including the 11 state universities. And a final $10 million will go to the Northern Gulf Initiative, a consortium led by Mississippi State University that includes four other institutions scattered across the Gulf Coast states.
In signing up for the BP money, the institutions were careful to negotiate academic freedom for themselves in deciding what lines of research to pursue.
“Clearly, our scientists need to be able to work independently,” said Vickie Chachere, a spokeswoman for the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, which heads the Florida consortium. “BP is going to be completely hands-off on this. There will be no strings attached.”
BP pledged that more money would be coming beyond the $25 million. It appointed an expert panel that will make recommendations on which institutions will receive those funds, with Rita Colwell, one of the most respected names in American science, as chairwoman. Ms. Colwell, an environmental microbiologist who holds a degree in oceanography, formerly headed the National Science Foundation and is now a distinguished professor at the Johns Hopkins University.
“It is vitally important that research start immediately into the oil and dispersant’s impact, and that the findings are shared fully and openly,” BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, said in a statement announcing the research money. “We support the independence of these institutions and projects, and hope that the funding will have a significant positive effect on scientists’ understanding of the impact of the spill.”
Jad Mouawad and Liz Robbins contributed reporting.