BP does not actually know how fast its oil disaster is growing, a top executive testified on Tuesday. Although its claim that the spill is growing at 210,000 gallons a day is widely accepted, BP America chairman and president Lamar McKay said that is just a guess based on the size of the surface slick from the destroyed Deepwater Horizon well. After Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) questioned why BP’s estimate changed a week after the fatal explosion from 1000 barrels (42,000 gallons) to 5000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day, McKay said “there’s no certainty around that number” because “you can’t measure what’s coming out at the seabed”:
The volume estimates are based effectively on surface expression, because you can’t measure what’s coming out at the seabed. So this is based on NOAA models and Coast Guard — NOAA, Coast Guard, and BP estimates effectively from surface information, overflights and things like that, and then backed into in terms of the volume. So, there’s no certainty around that number. There’s a large uncertainty bound around 1000, there’s uncertainty around 5000. It’s the best estimate currently.
It’s extremely questionable whether 210,000 gallons a day is, in fact, “the best estimate.” Independent satellite analysis experts Dr. John Amos and Dr. Ian McDonald have estimated from surface imagery that the BP disaster is increasing at a rate of over one million gallons a day:
The last “official” estimate of 210,000 gallons a day was made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and accepted by the Coast Guard back on April 29. However, 372,000 gallons of dispersants have been sprayed on the slick, making surface imagery useless for judging the ever-expanding cloud of oil coming from a mile below the ocean. On May 1, the Coast Guard and NOAA stopped trying to estimate the spill rate, with Admiral Thad Allen saying:
Any exact estimation of what’s flowing out of those pipes down there is probably impossible at this time.
Despite this uncertainty, the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and other media organizations credulously report that the BP disaster has spilled less than five million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico so far, instead of 25 million gallons. The Wall Street Journal and Associated Press have challenged the official undercount, and PBS Newshour has published a running counter which allows users to adjust the estimated leak rate.
It is troubling that BP’s McKay — who likes to describe the efforts to contain the gushers as “open-heart surgery at 5000 feet” — says his company can’t measure the flow rate of the leaks directly, even with multiple undersea robots filming them 24 hours a day. As of today, BP has released approximately 45 seconds of footage of the gushing leaks, including a clip of oil spewing out of the failed containment dome.
The Washington Post finally questioned the official flow rate estimate today.