Gulf oil spill may be 19 times bigger than originally thought

05/19/2010 7:36 PM

10/06/2010 9:25 PM

WASHINGTON — The latest glimpse of video footage of the oil spill deep under the Gulf of Mexico indicates that around 95,000 barrels, or 4 million gallons, a day of crude oil may be spewing from the leaking wellhead, 19 times the previous estimate, an engineering professor told Congress Wednesday.

The figure of 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day that BP and the federal government have been using for weeks is based on observations of the surface slick made by satellites and aircraft. Even NASA's satellite-based instruments, however, can't see deep into the waters of the gulf, where much of the oil from the gusher seems to be floating. The well is 5,000 feet below the surface.

Adm. Thad Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, said in an interview Wednesday that he'd had many conversations over the past week or more with other government science officials about how to get a more precise calculation of the flow, a better estimate of the total oil in the gulf since the April 20 explosion and an accurate assessment of what's happening to the oil on the surface.

Allen said his advisers are considering putting sensors near the leak that would give a better understanding of the amount of oil entering the water. "It's coming together very nicely. I'm satisfied we'll have the right people," he said. It's not yet known when the equipment would be ready to use, he added.

Sonar equipment already has been used to try to figure out how well chemical dispersants are working at deep levels, Allen said.

"I don't mean to be glib, but it's kind of hard to measure the amount of water you're putting on a fire while you're fighting a fire," he said. Federal agencies got as much equipment assembled as they could to keep the oil away from shore by skimming, burning and other measures, he said.

There's also limited space for the robotic vehicles to work near the spill site as BP engineers try to contain the spill, which is the top priority, he said.

Allen announced plans to assemble the team of experts to measure the size of the spill during hearings on Tuesday. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said that it would be important, but difficult, to figure out the amount of oil from the ruptured wellhead.

Steve Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., earlier this month made simple calculations from a single video BP released on May 12 and calculated a flow of 70,000 barrels a day, NPR reported last week.

On Wednesday, Wereley told a House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee that his calculations of two leaks that are on videos BP released on Tuesday showed 70,000 barrels from one leak and 25,000 from the other.

He said the margin of error was about 20 percent, making the spill between 76,000 and 104,000 barrels a day. However, Wereley said he'd need to see videos that showed the flow over a longer period to get a better calculation of the mix of oil and gas from the wellhead.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who led the hearing, said he'd work to get that information from BP.

"The true extent of this spill remains a mystery," Markey said. He said BP had said that the flow rate was not relevant to the cleanup effort. "This faulty logic that BP is using is . . . raising concerns that they are hiding the full extent of the damage of this leak."

Markey said he wrote to BP last week asking how it made its estimate and whether it had refused offers by scientists to provide better estimates. He said BP merely sent back an acknowledgement of the receipt of his letter, but didn't answer.

Richard Camilli, an associate scientist in the department of applied ocean physics and engineering at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told Markey and others on the panel that he responded to a request for help from BP on May 1 to get a look inside the failed blowout preventer.

Camilli develops instrument sensors and robotic technology to detect pollution in the ocean below the surface. He suggested using multi-beam sonar and an acoustic current profiler to measure the flow of oil and gas. That would help scientists determine if the blowout preventer was partially constricted and what happened to it, he said.

BP was at first interested, but a few days later declined the offer.

Camilli said the same instruments could be used to estimate the total spill volume.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., asked Camilli and the other scientists who testified if knowing the amount was important.

"Absolutely," Camilli said. "It's like balancing your checkbook. You have to know where the oil has gone, where the gas has gone, and what the eventual fate will be."

Wereley said it's crucial to know the rate of the flow of oil to figure out what could stop it.

Frank Muller-Karger, a professor of biological oceanography and remote sensing at the University of South Florida, said it's important to know the real amount of the spill.

In another hearing on Wednesday, the chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship pressed officials from the Small Business Administration and the Government Accountability Office to streamline the loan process for business owners in the wake of the spill.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she's concerned that small business will fail while waiting for financial relief.

James Rivera, an associate administrator in the Small Business Administration, said his office made strides, streamlining the process for applicants and allowing existing borrowers to deter loan payments.

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