How The Oil Leak Estimates Got Low-Balled

An underwater camera captures a plume of oil during operations to cut the broken riser pipe at the site of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Tuesday, June 1, 2010. BP oil spill oil leak CBS

Just last week, the Interior Department released a range of 12-to-19,000 barrels a day -- up to four times what the government and BP had claimed. That's 504,000 to 798,000 gallons each day. That's bad enough. But it turns out that's not exactly what the scientists conducting the analysis found.

Sources tell CBS News that 12-19,000 barrels a day is actually the minimum believed to be leaking from the well based on the most "conservative assumptions." The upper end of the range, a maximum, hasn't yet been released. But those facts were lost somewhere in the translation between the scientists and the Interior Department press release.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

Here's how the scientific team studying the plume leaking from the well phrased their estimate: "Plume Modeling: at least 12,000 to 25,000 barrels per day (range of lower bounds)"

But when the facts were written up for the Interior Department press release for the public, the words "at least" and "range of lower bounds" were not included. Nor was there mention that the upper bounds had yet to be agreed upon, and that they could be "significantly larger." In short, the press release made it sound like 19,000 barrels a day was the largest amount that scientists decided could be gushing from the well.

"The lower and upper boundaries are in the range of 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day," said the press release.

BP and government officials then repeated the range in interviews.

"Well, the current estimates by the government are between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day," said the BP's Robert Dudley on Sunday's "Face the Nation". White House Adviser Carol Browner agreed that estimates were at "the 12,000 to 19,000."

Many involved in the effort were unhappy with what they considered incorrect reporting and interpretation of the scientific work. The estimates matter greatly because BP could have to pay fines of up to $4,300 per barrel for each barrel spilled. They may also be required to pay royalties to the U.S. for the lost oil. The range means differences of millions of gallons and billions of dollars.

With BP's original estimate of just 1,000 barrels a day, they could have owed $172 million dollars for the first 40 days.

With last week's government low estimate of 12,000 barrels a day, the fine could be $2 billion dollars.

But if the upper bounds of the range are "significantly larger," as sources believe, BP's fine could easily jump to upwards of $4 billion dollars for just the first 40 days.

Faced with questions as to whether some in the government were "low balling" the oil flow estimates, the Interior Department today revised their original press release. It now reflects that 12-25,000 barrels a day is a "lower bound" estimate and that scientists are still working on the "upper bound."

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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