Gulf Oil Spill: It's Way Larger Than We Thought -- and Than BP Admitted

Last Updated May 27, 2010 5:04 PM EDT

The mystery surrounding how much oil has been gushing from BP's deepwater well has been cracked -- in spite of early resistance from the oil company to bother measuring the spill. A federal team has determined the rate of oil flowing from the well is at least twice -- and perhaps as much as five times -- larger than previous estimates. This latest revelation promises to haunt BP all the way to the courtroom, given the company resisted pressure to measure the spill.

It's an unfortunate confirmation of what many scientists, environmentalists and lawmakers worried about all along. The announcement also dampened the first positive news to come out since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded five weeks ago: that BP has had initial success in plugging the well.

The upshot? This Gulf oil spill will make the record books, surpassing the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, as the worst in U.S. history. It also will mean more money out the door for BP. The previous estimate of 5,000 barrels a day could have saved BP million of dollars in damages once the financial impact of the spill was resolved in court, legal experts told McClatchy News. The amount of oil spilled will be considered key evidence in court. The size of the Exxon Valdez spill, McClatchy noted, was a significant factor the jury considered when it assessed damages against Exxon (XOM).

The federal team, formally called the Flow Rate Technical Group, used three separate methodologies to calculate its initial estimate, USGS director Marcia McNutt told reporters in a conference call Thursday. The team's preliminary results estimate the flow rate at between 12,000 barrels and 19,000 barrels a day. McNutt emphasized that the numbers were preliminary. That means, using the lower figure, about 19 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf.

The largest estimate, led by a team using video observation and advanced image analysis, was as much as 25,000 barrels a day. Ultimately, that figure wasn't used because the team ran into several problems, including poor lighting and an obstructed view that made it difficult to get an accurate reading.

Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the response team, maintained in a statement Thursday that the resources and tactics used have always been based on a worst-case, catastrophic scenario. Even so, this more accurate data will certainly influence the intensity of the cleanup effort as the public comes to understand what the numbers mean. The public, and the lawmakers they voted in, will simply demand a greater effort.

It's hard to say if this will mean additional supplies and workers -- some of whom have already reported headaches, dizziness and nausea -- will be needed. It will all depend on whether those worst-case scenario plans are in line with the size of the spill. Still, pubic perception means a lot. A "suddenly" larger spill could punish the fishing and tourism industries more than anticipated. And that's a lot of money. The value of the Gulf coast's tourism industry is $20 billion, according to the EPA. Louisiana's commercial seafood industry is estimated at $2.4 billion annually.