For much of the time since an April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon sank the oil rig, the government has estimated that 5,000 barrels of oil are leaking from an underwater well into the Gulf each day. However, according to a New York Times report, the calculations used to come up with that estimate are not recommended for oil spills that large.
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Instead, Ian R. MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University and an expert on oil slick analysis, has used satellite images of the slick to produce an estimate that could "easily be four or five times" worse than assumed, according to the report.
BP's release of an underwater video of the leak, showing a plume of oil and gas spewing into the sea at a high rate, has added fodder for those who think the oil company and government are underreporting the vastness of the problem.
The government's estimate would put the flow rate at about 146 gallons a minute, Alun Lewis, a British oil-spill consultant told the Times. By comparison, a garden hose's flow rate is about 10 gallons a minute, the report notes.
"Just anybody looking at that video would probably come to the conclusion that there's more," Mr. Lewis said.
Meanwhile, BP is in the midst of another bid to reduce the leak Friday, this time using undersea robots to thread a small tube into a jagged pipe on the seafloor to suck oil to the surface before it can spew into the water.
Company engineers were trying to move the 6-inch tube into the leaking 21-inch pipe, known as the riser. The smaller tube will be surrounded by a stopper to keep oil from leaking into the sea. BP said it hopes to know by Friday evening if the tube succeeds in siphoning the oil to a tanker at the surface.
The smaller tube will be surrounded by a stopper to keep oil from leaking into the sea. The tube will then siphon the crude to a tanker at the surface, though BP declined to estimate how much oil the tube will be able to collect.
According to the Times report, BP officials have turned down offers from scientists to work on getting a more accurate measure of the leak, saying new estimates wouldn't affect their top priority, reducing the flow of oil into the Gulf.
"We're putting every effort into this. It's really not tied to the rate," Doug Suttles, BP's Chief Operating Officer,
Dr. Jane Lubchenco, an administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, offered a similar analysis.
"I think the estimate at the time was, and remains, a reasonable estimate," she told the Times. "Having greater precision about the flow rate would not really help in any way. We would be doing the same things."
But members of the scientific community think the company and government response will be incomplete without a better sense of the problem's scope.
"If we are systematically underestimating the rate that's being spilled, and we design a response capability based on that underestimate, then the next time we have an event of this magnitude, we are doomed to fail again," said John Amos, the president of environmental group SkyTruth, told the Times. "So it's really important to get this number right."
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Meanwhile, 5,000 feet under the sea, if the tube being inserted doesn't work, BP could try a second containment box, which would be placed over the well and also would siphon the oil to the surface.
In another interesting experiment, BP might wind up shooting junk of all shapes and sizes to plug the nooks and crannies into the blowout preventer - a giant piece of machinery that's allowing some of the oil to escape. In the aptly named "junk shot," engineers would shoot pieces of tires, golf balls, knotted rope and other items into it in hopes the right size stuff makes its way to the appropriate holes. Once the leak is clogged, heavy mud will be poured in. It would then be sealed off with cement.
BP also has sprayed chemicals on the oil to break it up into smaller droplets, with about 4 million gallons of oil-contaminated water recovered.
The size of the spill, as measured from satellites, seems to have grown about 50 percent from May 10 to late Thursday, said Hans Graber, director of the University of Miami's Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. It's now measured at around 3,650 square miles.
"There's a hell of a lot coming out," Graber said of the oil.
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