BP Risks Disaster By Playing Down the Gulf Oil Spill's True Size

Last Updated May 17, 2010 2:34 PM EDT

Bad news just doesn't stop coming for BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Working with new underwater video showing the source of the spill, National Public Radio reported yesterday that there could be 10 times as much oil coming out as the previous estimate of 5,000 barrels per day. Which raises some big questions about whether BP is being honest about the size of the spill.

BP has so far used Coast Guard estimates based on the amount of oil on the surface of the water. Everyone agrees that surface measurements are, at best, imprecise. But according to three separate experts in NPR's article, there's a better way -- simply looking at the flow rate from the broken pipe on the ocean's floor, which is exactly what they've done with the underwater video.

So why isn't BP using such flow estimates? Speaking to NPR, a BP spokesman said that "there's no way to estimate the flow coming out of the pipe accurately," testimony that it has also given to Congress.

That's certainly a true statement if applied to surface measurements, since the oil can vary in thickness and some never surfaces at all. There's a growing chorus of voices, though, that's asking for updated figures based on pipe flow.

Following NPR's big break, the NYT dug into the same story yesterday. According to the Times, scientists have specifically recommended against using surface oil measurements for big oil spills. And like NPR, the paper found several scientists willing to speak for flow rate calculations:

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. Scientists said that such equipment could be tuned to allow for accurate measurement of oil and gas flowing from the well.

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, Mr. Bowen said. 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.

Clearly, looking at flow rates would at least provide additional valuable data on the spill -- yet BP seems to be actively discouraging attempts to look at the flow. The NYT, for instance, reports that BP's response amounted to a spokesman statement that the rate of flow "would not affect either direction or the scale of our response," a message repeated by a representative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The message is a familiar one. Originally, at the beginning of the saga of the spill, BP stuck to its guns with the same line and an even smaller number: just 1,000 barrels per day. That was until both BP and the government were forced to revise the figure to 5,000 barrels, based on the work of a tiny analyst group called SkyTruth.

Now the same dance of underestimation appears to be playing out with flow rate. And while it may be entirely true that the current response would not change much if we knew rates were higher, another thing would: BP's liability for the ongoing cleanup and damages, not to mention its public image.

Along with the rising estimations of the spill's size, BP's costs have been spiraling upwards since day one. A couple weeks ago, we reported that BP was paying $6 million a day, with a total liability approaching $5 billion. Yesterday, those costs had gone up to $33 million a day and $22.6 billion total.

From here, it's impossible to estimate how high BP's liabilities could go if the spill is several times the size previously estimated. The number could be huge, though, and BP has an obvious vested interest in downplaying estimates and shooting for the lowest number possible.

But this is where BP enters hazardous territory. If the company is intentionally blocking new revelations about the size of the spill, it risks an even greater backlash when the truth surfaces, especially if it keeps saying that the spill is just a drop in the ocean.

And even if BP is only focusing on other priorities, it still risks looking like it's promulgating a cover-up. Even now, you can basically see BP's public image disintegrating, with ever more allegations that it's doing its best to avoid responsibility. "It's as if they're playing off Exxon's game sheet," a biologist who worked to clean up the Valdez oil spill told The Faster Times.

Exxon ultimately managed to duck much of the responsibility in the Valdez spill, but this is a larger spill, in a more populated area, and there's too much attention being paid for BP to luck out the same way.

At worst, the company risks becoming a career-building tool for politicians who want to be seen taking down a villain. They're certainly watching closely: Edward Markey, a Democratic congressman, yesterday observed on his own that the flow rate could be as high as 70,000 barrels per day, saying he intends to launch his own investigation.

Before that happens, we have some advice for BP: take a look at those flow rates, pronto.

[Image of oil spill via the U.S. Coast Guard]