Gulf Oil Spill Could be Much Larger Than Thought

How much oil is gushing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? It could be far more than what has been estimated so far. According to a report in The New York Times, some scientists and environmental groups say current estimates of 5,000 barrels per day- somewhere in the neighborhood of 210,000 gallons – could be way off base.

Concerns about the actual amount of oil coming from the well were raised yesterday, after BP finally released video footage of one of the leaks on the sea floor. That video showed a huge black plume of oil gushing from the broken well at a what looked like a high rate.

The 5,000 barrel estimate came from government scientists in Seattle with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who the Times said used a calculation method that is not recommended for large oil spills. Ian R. MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who is an expert in the analysis of oil slicks, told the Times that his calculations using satellite imagery show the spill four or five times bigger than the government’s guess.

For its part, BP says there is no accurate way to measure the spill. The oil giant says it is more focused on stopping the leak and cleaning up the mess.

But the Times’ piece contradicts BP’s assertions. It seems that there is a technique using undersea gear that could produce an accurate measurement. The gear, which resembles medical ultrasound equipment, measures the flow rate from hot-water vents on the ocean floor. In fact, a team had been contacted late last week to attempt such a measurement, but BP disinvited them, the Times said.

BP doesn’t seem to think the true rate of leakage matters. A spokesperson for the company told the Times that “the estimated rate of flow would not affect either the direction or scale of our response.”

But environmental groups insist getting an accurate measurement is vital. They point out that this catastrophe is likely to create a template for dealing with deepwater spills in the future. Underestimating the leakage rate will result in a flawed response plan, meaning efforts to contain future spills will likely fail.

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