Scientists Say Gulf Spill Is Way Worse Than Estimated. How'd We Get It So Wrong?

By Andrew Moseman | May 14, 2010 12:42 pm

gulfspill511Videos of the oil leak 5,000 feet down in the Gulf of Mexico are coming out, and according to some scientists, the news is even worse than we thought.

If you remember back a few weeks to the outset of the BP oil spill, the official estimate was that 1,000 barrels of oil (42,000 gallons) was leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. While that’s nothing to sneeze at, the total wasn’t catastrophic compared to historic spills like the Exxon Valdez. Then, more than a week after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did their own quick calculation and quintupled the estimate to 5,000 barrels per day.

BP later acknowledged to Congress that the worst case, if the leak accelerated, would be 60,000 barrels a day, a flow rate that would dump a plume the size of the Exxon Valdez spill into the gulf every four days. BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, has estimated that the reservoir tapped by the out-of-control well holds at least 50 million barrels of oil [The New York Times].

Now, according to an independent analysis done by Purdue’s Steve Werely with video footage of the leak, that worst-case figure by BP is close to what’s actually happening, and the true total might be even higher. Werely estimates the leak at 70,000 barrels per day, and with a 20% uncertainty in the numbers, that gives a range of 56,000 to 84,000.

Werely told The Guardian he based his estimate on techniques which track the speed of objects travelling in the flow stream.”You can see in the video lots of swirls and vortices pumping out of the end of the pipe, and I used a computer code to track those swirls and come up with the speed at which the oils is shooting out of the pipe,” he said. “From there it is a very simple calculation to figure out what is the volume flow” [The Guardian].

A second estimate by Eugene Chiang of UC-Berkeley provided a window of 20,000 to 100,000 barrels a day. Though the margin is wider, the estimate roughly coincides with Werely’s. But, if these guys are right, then how the heck did initial estimates miss the mark so badly?

The 5,000-barrel-a-day estimate was produced in Seattle by a NOAA unit that responds to oil spills. It was calculated with a protocol known as the Bonn convention that calls for measuring the extent of an oil spill, using its color to judge the thickness of oil atop the water, and then multiplying [The New York Times].

But according to other experts, that method isn’t especially accurate for large spills, especially one like this with large quantities of oil below the surface, unable to be seen from above.

There’s another alternative way to measure this, too. Researchers can use ultrasound to measure the flow rate; they do it under happier circumstances to measure how much oil or gas a well is providing. But two researchers who were going to take these measurements were turned away because BP was about to commence its now-failed attempt to install a containment box over the leak. They haven’t been invited back yet.

It’s one thing to be wrong, but the troubling development in measuring the spill is that neither BP nor NOAA appears terribly interested in getting the right number. When asked about the varying estimates of the leak total, BP leaders have deflected the question and said that it doesn’t really matter how big the spill is because their response would be the same. The government has responded in much the same way:

“I think the estimate at the time was, and remains, a reasonable estimate,” said Dr. Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator. “Having greater precision about the flow rate would not really help in any way. We would be doing the same things” [The New York Times].

For immediate response that may be true. But what about after the spill is finally, someday, stopped? Just as one example, it came out this week that the Deepwater Horizon, like many other rigs in the Gulf, was given the go-ahead to drill without receiving permits for assessing potential dangers to endangered species in the area. Now that responders are playing catch-up after the fact, it might be nice to know whether the leak amounts to 5,000 barrels a day or an entire order of magnitude higher than that.

In any case, the Coast Guard is beginning to treat the spill as a major disaster, according to Commandant Thad Allen.

“It has the potential to be catastrophic … I am going to act as if it is,” Allen told reporters in a briefing [Reuters].

Previous posts on the Gulf Oil Spill:
80beats: Testimony Highlights 3 Major Failures That Caused Gulf Spill
80beats: 5 Offshore Oil Hotspots Beyond the Gulf That Could Boom—Or Go Boom
80beats: Gulf Oil Spill: Do Chemical Dispersants Pose Their Own Environmental Risk?
80beats: Gulf Oil Spill: Fisheries Closed; Louisiana Wetlands Now in Jeopardy
80beats: Uh-Oh: Gulf Oil Spill May Be 5 Times Worse Than Previously Thought

Image: U.S. Coast Guard

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • fatkid

    “Drill baby drill” sounds kinda sexy until I have to pay $30 a pound for scallops!

    I thought building a habitat eraser, without any oversight, was something we did to other countries. We have more wells tapped all over our coasts. What’s next- $40 a pound for california sea bass? $100 for an authentic maine lobster?

  • http://www.team-tcp.com Doug from Dougland

    It’s absolutely ridiculous how deeply the tentacles of the big corporations penetrate our government. I understand rage at this happening, but I think the rage is best directed at the people who let this happen: our current crop of senators and representatives and the twisted status quo that keeps them un-accountable for it! By all means charge BP and go after them, but maybe do a little bit to keep this or something like it from happening again. Sure it’s too much to ask, but I’m an optomist.

  • kirk

    Unlike 1972, it’s a good thing we changed Dick’s in the middle of a screw. Dick Cheney is toxic waste.

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    This is an absolute disaster now. Not if or when. That pipe down there is 5 feet wide. The ‘relief well’ is going to be about 2 1/2 feet wide. GOOD LUCK!

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts

    Oh well.

    Maybe in 100 years people won’t be as stupid and as easily duped as we are.

    But I doubt it.

    We are really sh***y stewards of our planet for the next generation.

    Oh well.

    Sucks to be them.

  • Zachary

    It’s almost like they actively want to ruin public trust.

  • Cory

    It’s hilarious to try to point fingers at corporations, the government, or anyone else, really.

    Every last one of us is responsible for this. If you drive a car, use petroleum-powered public transportation, use petroleum-derived electricity, use many plastics — this is on your lap, too. Remember that one of the first rules of the blame game is this: if you’re playing it, you very well might be to blame, too.

  • Greg

    If I had a very strong concept to stop the flow and yet still be able to capture the oil to whom would I submit this too?? Having given substantial thought and development to the situation over the past several days due to the inability of all the engineers/scientists to stop this flow, what I have developed I truly believe will work and do so very well yet maitain the capability to harvest the oil. Does anyone, included the staff at Discover Magazine know where to submit this proposed solution to? I will check back on this site every few hours for responses to follow through with. I will also continue checking other government and scientific site of those who may be involved in this effort. Thanks for any suggestions that you may come up with.

  • G
  • http://spottedowlstew.com Gary Jones

    There appears to be no current satellite images
    on the Internet since May 10.
    That is with a very exhaustive Google search.
    Is there a blackout of new images? Why?
    National security excuse?

  • Albert Bakker

    #5 – I’m sorry Cory but while I drive a car occasionally, I don’t drill for oil to drive it, don’t run an oil-platform and have no say whatsoever in how the execute that work. That’s a good thing because I have no expertise in oil drilling or how to execute that safely. Instead I pay for the end-product to be produced safe, with minimal risk for environment and personnel and at the very least maximal effort to absolutely minimize impact for local ecological systems. I pay for that expertise to be used in producing the product I buy. And I pay handsomely for that. You can opt for diluting the responsibilities of oil companies to homeopathic proportions so in the end no one has to take any responsibility and clear the real culprits that way. But I fail to see how misplacing the incentive would actually do any good. I feel free of the slightest conscientious objection to exclude myself completely from taking part of the blame for this disaster and put it squarely at the feet of those who actually are to blame.

  • http://www.thebearparty.tumblr.com Theo Bear

    Maybe we could drive less and drill less -
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70RZzxR8pqU

  • amphiox

    Albert Bakker:

    Instead I pay for the end-product to be produced safe, with minimal risk for environment and personnel and at the very least maximal effort to absolutely minimize impact for local ecological systems. I pay for that expertise to be used in producing the product I buy. And I pay handsomely for that.

    Did you insist on these standards? Did you check if such were in fact employed? Did you refuse to continue to pay when you found out that they were not? Or did you refuse to continue to pay when you searched but found that such information was not forthcoming? And did you make it clear that although you would not pay if these standards were not met, you would be willing to pay even more to ensure that they were?

    If you did not do any and all of this, then yes, you, like the rest of us, share the responsibility. Certainly not as much as the corporation and politicians themselves, who had more direct power, but some of it, yes, definitely.

  • Chris Winter

    Did you insist on these standards? Did you check if such were in fact employed? Did you refuse to continue to pay when you found out that they were not? Or did you refuse to continue to pay when you searched but found that such information was not forthcoming? And did you make it clear that although you would not pay if these standards were not met, you would be willing to pay even more to ensure that they were?

    Did you, Amphiox?

    It’s one thing to say everyone who drives a car bears some responsibility for Western civilization’s dependence on petroleum. It’s quite another to assert that anyone who failed to discover carelessness in oil-drilling and protest to the company responsible has no right to complain about the damage that results when that carelessness blows up in the company’s face — indeed, in all our faces.

  • Art

    I don’t feel at all responsible. While I buy petroleum related products, I am not on any regulatory committees and the corporations and legislators know they can do more to enforce safety.
    Measures should be taken to inform the public how they can help reduce waste and emissions. Manufacturers should use less materials for packaging and stop with all the single-serving, prepackaged stuff. Maybe now more municipalities will encourage recycling and proper disposal and use of natural resources. It won’t fix what’s going on now, but, maybe it will counter some of the ill effects, so future generations won’t have to pay so much for our gluttony.

  • Greg

    Thanks for sharing the deepwaterhorizonresponse.com link. I just posted a proposed solution a couple hours ago. We’ll see how long it takes to get back to me. I believe that the proposal is very sound based on some strong principles that I have seen in use in a different application. Deepwater seems to say that they will get back to the sender after a review of the suggestion whether it’s useable or not. According to the conversation I had with one of the ladies on the phone lines berfore I submitted this proposal-they had gotten back to around 200 individuals. If anyone out there has any other areas where I can submit this (its’s now in pdf format) please let me know. I will be checking here frequently to see where else I can go to suggest this solution. Thanks All

  • http://justriza.net Horacio Ripplinger

    BPs Stock has lost a market value of 25Billion

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