How Big is the Oil Spill?

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We got a small bit of good oil spill news the other day when BP announced that its attempt to insert a smaller pipe inside the broken end of the main undersea pipe had succeeded. But it turns out there’s bad news too:

BP said Thursday that it is now capturing 5,000 barrels a day of crude oil and 15 million cubic feet of natural gas from a leaking pipe at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the first official admission that earlier estimates of the amount of oil spilling into sea were too small.

The amount of oil being captured is only a portion of the total because the company is catching oil from only one of two leaks. BP has also released a video that shows additional unquantified amounts of oil continuing to spurt out of the damaged pipe where the company is capturing oil through a new tube insertion. The smaller of the two leaks continues to spill unobstructed and accounts for 15 percent of the total flow, BP officials reiterated Thursday.

If BP’s siphon is catching 5,000 barrels a day, the main pipe must be spilling a whole lot more than that. How much more?

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.

If that’s the case, it means that probably more than 100 million gallons has already spilled into the gulf. That will soon make this, by far, the biggest peacetime oil spill in history. Kate Sheppard has more here and here.

And why has BP been so cagey about the size of the spill? Because the smaller it is, the lower their liability will be. “It’s always a bottom-line issue,” says Marilyn Heiman, a former Clinton administration Interior Department official who now heads the Arctic Program for the Pew Environment Group. “Any company wouldn’t have an interest in having this kind of measurement if they can help it.”

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