Gulf oil spill: New figure on leak's size will come 'next week'

McClatchy NewspapersMay 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Scientists and engineers from U.S. universities and the federal government are studying videos of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other information about the equipment at the bottom of the sea in hopes of arriving at an accurate estimate of how much oil has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said Friday.

But an asssertion earlier Friday by BP, the owner of the leaking well, that the task force would provide the new estimate by Saturday is incorrect, Landry said. "This team is not going to be rushed or pushed to come up with an answer too quickly because you really have to do a rigorous analysis,” she said.

She said results would probably be available "sometime next week."

The official estimate of the spill for weeks has been 5,000 barrels a day, or 210,000 gallons, a figure derived from surface observations. In the past 10 days, however, those estimates have been widely challenged after videos of leaking pipes were made public that showed clouds of crude billowing into the water. On Wednesday, an engineering professor told Congress that he thinks 95,000 barrels of oil is flowing from the wreckage — 70,000 barrels from a fallen riser pipe and 25,000 more from a second leak just above the dysfunctional blowout preventer.

BP's own announcement Thursday that a tube inserted into one of the leaks was now siphoning 5,000 barrels of oil to the surface, while a live video feed showed crude still billowing from the pipe, further discredited the official estimate.

Landry acknowledged that the size of the spill was important.

“We’re all very concerned about the actual amount of oil and this does influence things down the road,” she said, adding that it was “a very important part of our oversight of the responsible party,” meaning BP.

She said the estimate would show how much oil had gushed from the broken well pipe since the spill began after an April 20 explosion set the Deepwater Horizon aflame and killed 11 rig workers.

Administration officials testifying before Congress on Tuesday announced plans for the formation of a task force, but it was unclear when its members were selected and whether they had already begun their work.

Mike Lutz, a Coast Guard spokesman, said Friday that the team would study videos of the oil gushing from the leaks, as well as information about pressure and the ruined equipment on the sea floor. He said he didn’t know if the team would use other equipment, such as sonar, to measure the flow.

The task force is chaired by David Moore, the coordinator of the national outer continental shelf oil spill program for the government's Minerals Management Service, and Catherine Cesnik, who leads the sustainable building policy for the Department of the Interior. Its members would include Steve Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who told a congressional panel this week that his rough calculation of the spill based on analysis from early videos released by BP put the daily amount at 95,000 barrels per day, or about 4 million gallons.

Other member will include representatives from the Coast Guard, the Minerals Management Service, the Department of Energy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and academics.

BP isn't participating on the task force, but the company said it would supply all the information the government has requested.

BP said it's been supporting the government’s efforts to figure out how fast oil is flowing from the well. Its statement said it had all along “made it a priority to quickly and consistently” give NOAA and the Coast Guard the information they requested to make a better estimate of the flow.

BP's announcement implicitly criticized Werely's higher estimates. BP said that the riser, the pipe between the wellhead and the drilling platform, is 19.5 inches in diameter, but the accident damaged it and reduced its diameter by 30 percent, and a drill pipe trapped inside it reduced the flow by 10 percent more, the company said. "Thus, some third party estimates of flow, which assume a 19.5 inch diameter, are inaccurate," it said.

BP also said that about half of what's coming out of the riser is natural gas, but it wasn't clear whether the company had taken actual measurements to reach that conclusion.

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