Drill, Baby, Drill. Spill, BP, Spill

It looks like the oil spill in the gulf is much larger than we’ve been led to believe. BP deserves it’s share — a large share — of the criticism for what has happened, but has the administration done everything it could do to help with the oil spill problem. Has it mobilized all possible resources, taken control of the response, etc.? 

Or has it left too much of the task to BP, and, as convenient, accepted lowball estimates of the magnitude of the problem hoping somehow it would go away?  Are you satisfied with the administration’s response? I’m not:

Size of Oil Spill Underestimated, Scientists Say, by Justin Gillis, NY Times: Two weeks ago, the government put out a round estimate of the size of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico: 5,000 barrels a day. Repeated endlessly in news reports, it has become conventional wisdom.

But scientists and environmental groups are raising sharp questions about that estimate, declaring that the leak must be far larger. They also criticize BP for refusing to use well-known scientific techniques that would give a more precise figure.

The criticism escalated on Thursday, a day after the release of a video that showed a huge black plume of oil gushing from the broken well at a seemingly high rate. …

The figure of 5,000 barrels a day was hastily produced by government scientists in Seattle. It appears to have been calculated using a method that is specifically not recommended for major oil spills.

Ian R. MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who is an expert in the analysis of oil slicks, said he had made his own rough calculations using satellite imagery. They suggested that the leak could “easily be four or five times” the government estimate, he said. …

BP has repeatedly said that its highest priority is stopping the leak, not measuring it. “There’s just no way to measure it,” Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, said in a recent briefing.

Yet for decades, specialists have used a technique that is almost tailor-made for the problem. With undersea gear that resembles the ultrasound machines in medical offices, they measure the flow rate from hot-water vents on the ocean floor. …

Richard Camilli and Andy Bowen, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who have routinely made such measurements, spoke extensively to BP last week… They were poised to fly to the gulf to conduct volume measurements.

But they were contacted late in the week and told not to come, at around the time BP decided to lower a large metal container to try to capture the leak. That maneuver failed. They have not been invited again. …

The issue of how fast the well is leaking has been murky from the beginning. For several days after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, the government and BP claimed that the well on the ocean floor was leaking about 1,000 barrels a day.

A small organization called SkyTruth, which uses satellite images to monitor environmental problems, published an estimate on April 27 suggesting that the flow rate had to be at least 5,000 barrels a day, and probably several times that.

The following day, the government — over public objections from BP — raised its estimate to 5,000 barrels a day. …

BP later acknowledged to Congress that the worst case, if the leak accelerated, would be 60,000 barrels a day, a flow rate that would dump a plume the size of the Exxon Valdez spill into the gulf every four days. BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, has estimated that the reservoir tapped by the out-of-control well holds at least 50 million barrels of oil. …


Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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