With Gulf Oil Flow, Bad Keeps Getting Worse

A shorebird at Fort Pickens on the western end of Santa Rosa Island, Fla., uses an oil boom as a temporary perch as contract workers put out oil defense systems on the shoreline on June 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Pensacola News Journal, Tony Giberson)
AP Photo
Fifty-three days into the Gulf oil spill crisis, government officials and scientists still haven't been able to definitively answer a central question: Just how much oil is a blown-out underwater well spewing into the Gulf of Mexico?

What is clear is the estimates are continually getting worse.

On Friday, the Obama administration's point man for the government's response to the Gulf Coast oil spill acknowledged that reliable numbers on the severity of the crisis remain hard to get.

Speaking at a Washington briefing Friday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen conceded: "I think we're still dealing with the flow estimate. We're still trying to refine those numbers."

Allen gave reporters an update a day after a government task force said the blown-out well may have been spewing as much as 2.1 million gallons of oil per day - or twice as much as the government's previous worst-case estimate. Allen said officials still hope to be able to capture all it as equipment gets upgraded and more becomes available.

The new estimates would mean 42 million gallons to more than 100 million gallons of oil have already fouled the Gulf's fragile waters, affecting people who live, work and play along the coast from Louisiana to Florida - and perhaps beyond.

It is the third - and perhaps not the last - time the U.S. government has had to increase its estimate of how much oil is gushing. Trying to clarify what has been a contentious and confusing issue, officials on Thursday gave a wide variety of estimates.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

All the new spill estimates are worse than earlier ones - and far more costly for BP, which has seen its stock sink since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered the spill. Most of Thursday's estimates had more oil flowing in an hour than what officials once said was spilling in an entire day.

And those new numbers may mean far worse consequences for the environment, Paul Montagna, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, said Friday.

"Doubling the amount of oil does not have a linear effect, it doesn't double the consequences, it may instead have quadruple the consequences," Montagna, who studies the Gulf of Mexico deep sea reefs and other underwater ecosystems, said.

The spill was flowing at a daily rate that could possibly have been as high as 2.1 million gallons, twice the highest number the federal government had been saying, U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, who is coordinating estimates, said Thursday. But she said possibly more credible numbers are a bit lower.

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The estimate was for the flow before June 3 when a riser pipe was cut and then a cap placed on it. No estimates were given for the amount of oil gushing from the well after the cut, which BP said would increase the flow by about 20 percent. Nor are there estimates since a cap was put on the pipe, which already has collected more than 3 million gallons.

The estimates are not nearly complete and different teams have come up with different numbers. A new team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute came in with even higher estimates, ranging from 1 million gallons a day to 2.1 million gallons. If the high end is true, that means nearly 107 million gallons have spilled since April 20.

Even using other numbers that federal officials and scientists call a more reasonable range would have about 63 million gallons spilling since the rig explosion. If that amount was put in gallon milk jugs, they would line up for nearly 5,500 miles. That's the distance from the spill to London, where BP is headquartered, and then continuing on to Rome.

By comparison, the worst peacetime oil spill, 1979's Ixtoc 1 in Mexico, was about 140 million gallons over 10 months. The Gulf spill hasn't yet reached two months. The Exxon Valdez, the previous worst U.S. oil spill, was just about 11 million gallons, and the new figures mean Deepwater Horizon is producing an Exxon Valdez size spill every five to 13 days.

Meanwhile, BP said it could double the amount of oil it captures every day by next week, reports CBS News correspondent Don Teague. But local leaders say they need more help than they're getting.

"I have spent more time fighting the officials of BO and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil," Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana.

The mounting frustration at the government's response has put Allen under increasing scrutiny, but he said local officials have been given ample ability to communicate with the Coast Guard.

Allen also outlined the timetable in which containment efforts would be able to capture 40,000 to 50,000 barrels of oil daily - a level he said could be reached in the first week of July, with the construction of a new flexible riser pipe system and the arrival of two pairs of production and storage tankers, which are en route to the region.

Currently, the containment effort is capturing between 15,000 and 18,000 barrels of oil a day, which will increase to up to 28,000 barrels next week with the arrival of additional equipment, he said. Capacity could reach 38,000 barrels daily by the end of the June.

Meanwhile, in addition to fouled shorelines, the spill's toll is also growing among Louisiana wildlife. In the first nine days of June, wildlife workers rescued 547 oiled birds - almost as many as they did all of May, reports Teague.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama consoled relatives of the 11 workers killed in the oil rig explosion, acknowledging their "unimaginable grief" and personally assuring the families he will stand with them.

One man who lost a son asked Mr. Obama to support efforts to update federal law limiting the amount of money the families can collect.

"He told us we weren't going to be forgotten," said Keith Jones of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "He just wanted us to know this wasn't going to leave his mind and his heart."

Jones' 28-year-old son, Gordon, was working on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by BP PLC when it exploded April 20 and then sank.

Later in the day, the White House released a letter from Adm. Allen, who is overseeing the crisis for the government, inviting BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and "any appropriate officials from BP" to meet Wednesday with senior administration officials. Allen said Mr. Obama, who has yet to speak with any BP official since the explosion more than seven weeks ago, would participate in a portion of the meeting.

Asked if a relationship of "trust" had been established between the White House and the British oil company, Allen said Friday that "We have to have a cooperative, productive relationship for this thing to work, moving forward. ...This has to be a unified effort moving forward if we are to get this thing solved. If you call that trust, yes."

As the crude continues to foul the water, Louisiana leaders are rushing to the defense of the oil-and-gas industry and pleading with Washington to immediately bring back offshore drilling. Though angry at BP over the disaster, state officials warn that the Obama administration's six-month halt to new permits for deep-sea oil drilling has sent Louisiana's most lucrative industry into a death spiral.

They contend that drilling is safe overall and the moratorium is a knee-jerk reaction. They worry that it comes at a time when another major Louisiana industry - fishing - has been brought to a standstill by the Gulf mess.

The oil-and-gas brings in billions of dollars in revenue for Louisiana and accounting for nearly one-third of America's domestic crude production, and it took a heavy blow when the government imposed the moratorium.

"It's going to put us out of business," said Glenn LeCompte, owner of a Louisiana catering company that provides food to offshore rigs.

With all sorts of estimates for what's flowing from the BP well - some even smaller than the amount collected by BP in its containment cap - McNutt said the most credible range at the moment is between 840,000 gallons and 1.68 million gallons a day. Then she added that it was "maybe a little bit more."

But later Thursday, the Interior Department said scientists who based their calculations on video say the best estimate for oil flow before June 3 was between 1.05 million gallons a day and 1.26 million gallons a day. The department mentioned only a cubic meter per second rate from Woods Hole - not a rate that translated into actual amounts - and those numbers only added to the confusion on just how much oil is gushing out.

Previous estimates had put the range roughly between half a million and a million gallons a day, perhaps higher. At one point, the federal government claimed only 42,000 gallons were spilling a day and then it upped the number to 210,000 gallons.