Now You Can See BP's Live Oil-Spill Feed -- While Watching the Company Squirm

Last Updated May 21, 2010 8:19 PM EDT

Here's what we know about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The official 5,000-barrel-a-day estimate is wrong. The rest is a big mystery because the "official" estimates of how much is leaking and how much BP is now capturing is constantly shifting. In short, no one knows what size the spill is. If they do, they're not saying. But the public finally has some real information and firepower: a live video of the gushing well.

Until recently, no one except BP and some government officials, had access to the live video feed -- although they didn't appear to be using it. BP, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration based their official 5,000 barrel-a-day estimate on the amount of oil on the surface of the water -- a technique scientists say is inaccurate. When BP finally released a video (not live) of the leaking well, independent scientists calculated flow rates as high as 80,000 barrels a day. In the end, it was -- and still is -- speculation because BP has focused on plugging the leak, not measuring it.

It wasn't until the live video feed of the gushing well was made available to the public this week, that both BP and the government conceded the estimates were off. Federal officials now say it will be days before they can determine how much oil is leaking every day from the well.

The live video feed couldn't have come at a better time. BP recently inserted a mile-long pipe and began to siphon off the oil and gas to a nearby drillship. The capture-rate rose to an unbelievable 5,000 barrels a day, according to statements made to the press at the time. Which meant BP was preventing all of the leaking oil and gas from spreading into the gulf. Except that they weren't:

(Above feed of the oil spill may freeze occasionally due to high traffic. In case that's not working, check out the following YouTube video of the spill -- it's not live, but you'll get a good sense of it.)

But then a curious thing happened. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., got BP to make the live underwater video feed of the well available to the public. And that's when the world saw a lot of oil and gas still gushing from the well. Steve Wereley, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, as well as other researchers, believe the leak is between 25,000 barrels and 100,000 barrels a day. BP backed off of its earlier statements to the press that it was siphoning 5,000 barrels a day, further complicating the what-size-is-this-debate? "We never said it produced 5,000 barrels a day, Doug Suttles, BP's chief operation officer said Friday in a conference call. "I am sorry if you heard it that way."

In order to adequately fight the enemy -- the spill, in this case -- isn't best to know what you're up against? The government doesn't agree. Obama administration and Coast Guard officials have said the size of the leak wouldn't affect their cleanup efforts, which are geared to combat the worst case-scenario, the Post reported.

Here's the brilliance of BP's live video feed, which is experiencing intermittent availability due to heavy traffic. Now that it's available to everyone, it's become the perfect check to the company's claims.

Photo of oil spill clean up from BP