The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would be the worst in the nation's history if new oil flow estimates released today by a federal research team are accurate.
The BP PLC well could be pouring as much as 25,000 barrels a day into the Gulf, federal scientists said today. Flows at those levels over a month's time in which responders have been unable to stop the leak would eclipse the 262,000 barrels that spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster, the nation's worst spill to date.
"We think this is obviously a very significant disaster," said Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey and chairwoman of the flow-rate technical group that prepared the preliminary estimates. "I think with the numbers I've given you, you can do the math."
The new estimates more than double previous claims by BP and the government that 5,000 barrels a day was leaking into the Gulf.
Researchers on the flow-rate technical team -- composed of scientists from federal agencies and universities, but not BP -- came to similar estimates using different methodologies. One group used a mass balance approach to estimate the flow rate from the amount of oil on the surface of the Gulf. They calculated that 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day has poured into the Gulf.
Their estimates were based on data that show 130,000 to 270,000 barrels of crude was on the surface of the Gulf on May 17. Their calculation also assumed that a similar amount had already been burned, skimmed, dispersed or evaporated at that time.
Another group modeled the plume leaking from the broken riser pipes on the seafloor. They used video provided by BP of the plume to determine fluid velocity and came up with a flow-rate range of 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day.
A separate team came to a similar lower estimate by looking at the capture rates of the riser insertion tube that was collecting as much as 8,000 barrels a day from the broken riser pipe on Tuesday.
"Three methodologies suggest a lower-bound rate of 12,000 barrels per day, and two methodologies suggest that the flow rate is as much as 19,000 barrels per day," McNutt said. "It's remarkable that two entirely different methodologies yielded such similar results."
McNutt noted that each method has its own limitations and biases and that the estimates released today are preliminary.
A spokesman for BP would not comment on the new numbers.
"We're still having an interested look at them," he said.
Kristine Stratton, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said her initial reaction to the new estimates was "not one of surprise."
"We trust that they're closer to reality," Stratton said.
Other environmental groups and some lawmakers are also lamenting the news.
"Now we know the true scale of the monster we are fighting in the Gulf," said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. "BP has unleashed an unstoppable force of appalling proportions. It's as if two Exxon Valdez tankers have already run aground and more are on the way if they don't get this hole plugged."
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, echoed those concerns.
"Now we know what we always knew -- this spill is much larger than BP has claimed," Markey said. "What's clear is that BP has had an interest in lowballing the size of their accident, since every barrel spilled increases how much they could be fined by the government."
Markey today released a set of documents he obtained from BP that show the company estimated the spill rates as higher than the 1,000 barrels a day they claimed during the early days of the spill.
One document, dated April 27, shows BP's high estimate for the daily rate of the spill was 14,266 barrels a day. But one day later, BP publicly stated the spill was 1,000 barrels a day.
Markey said the discrepancy in the size of the spill could mean a $1.46 billion difference in the size of BP's fine.
"BP has to stop protecting their liability and start dealing with the reality of the size of this spill," Markey said. "Knowing the size of the spill is vital to all facets of this spill, from response to recovery to accountability."
Click here to read the April 27 BP document.
Click here to read another BP document.