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Gulf Oil Spill: Why Size Mattered From the Very Beginning, Especially for BP

BP faces billions in fines for the oil that spewed from its damaged Macondo well into the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year. So, it was hardly shocking to hear that BP disagrees with the government's estimates of how much oil flowed into the Gulf. Here's where it get wacky: BP believes the government was off by as much as 50 percent.

That would be a five and then a zero. No decimal point in between.

From the WSJ:

"BP has not offered its own numbers yet, but BP has told us that it thinks the government's numbers are too high," Priya Aiyar, deputy chief counsel at the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil spill and Offshore Drilling commission said Friday on the panel's final day of public deliberations. "It thinks the actual flow rate could be 20 percent to 50 percent lower."
The upshot? Penalties under the Clean Water Act, which were strengthened after the Exxon Valdez spill, begin at $1,100 for each barrel of oil that spills into federal waters. The U.S. Geological Survey determined earlier this year that 4.1 million barrels of oil (out of a total of 4.9 million barrels released from the well) actually made it into the Gulf. That means BP faces a minimum of $4.5 billion in fines if the official estimate stands. It gets worse for BP from there. BP could face $21.1 billion in fines if the court finds the UK oil company was grossly negligent, although this scenario is unlikely.

It's not just about the fines BP initially argued that measuring the size of the Gulf oil spill was an unnecessary distraction to the task of stopping the gushing well. The federal government acquiesced and put out a low-ball estimate of 5,000 barrels of oil a day based on satellite imagery. It would be five weeks before a federal team, called the Flow Rate Technical Group, would provide more accurate data. And even those numbers were low compared with what they would eventually determine.

Why does that matter? The damaged Macondo well may have been stopped earlier had there been more accurate spill data. The failed plan to pump heavy drilling mud into the top of the well in May was designed to work off the government's then low-ball estimate that 5,000 barrels of oil were flowing from the well, noted the Houston Chronicle. Engineers warned at the time that the plan would fail if 15,000 or more barrels were flowing.

Legal strategy Now BP is arguing that the flow rate was weaker and then increased over time as impediments to the oil were cut away. Meaning if BP's claims are true, the size of the spill could be smaller than government estimates. Less oil in federal waters, fewer fines for BP.

But BP's unwillingness to measure the spill early on makes it difficult, if not impossible, to prove that. BP's lawyers are already pursuing the only real remaining strategy: Discredit the team of scientists and the methods they used to come to the official government estimate.

Photo from Flickr user Brooks Elliott, CC 2.0
For complete coverage, see All Things BNET on BP's Gulf of Mexico Spill

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